We all know that cleaning alleviates stress and helps with anxiety. Since all of us got trapped in our homes since the pandemic began, we began to focus a lot more on keeping our surroundings clean. Why did this happen?
The first reason for this was obviously the hygiene and sanitation perspective. Our safety was at risk and we had to be on guard at all times, sanitise and disinfect regularly, and focus on keeping a completely scot-free environment for us all. The pandemic made us focus on improving our regular hygiene and cleanliness habits, and we’re all grateful for that.
The second reason for this was to make ourselves feel better. Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and countries went into lockdown one after another, there was a general sense of disconnect between us and the rest of the world. We all felt a little alienated and everything around us seemed bizarre and out of sorts. We didn’t understand what was happening because we knew barely anything about the virus, and till the time more information became available to us, we were essentially living in a dark cloud of fear.
When people feel alone and afraid, they tend to look inwards. If things are spiralling out of control, people focus on things that they can control around them. This means the focus during the pandemic shifted from the stressors that were out of their control in the outside world to those they could control in their own homes. People started to clean their homes, invest in better decor, improve their living space and make it as homely, comfortable, and safe as they could. A big part of this was their cleaning habits. People suddenly took full charge of their cleaning routines and it helped because cleaning has been proven to alleviate anxiety.
How Does Cleaning Help with Anxiety?
There are more than 40 million adults living in the United States alone that have some form of anxiety disorder. That’s a whopping 18.1% of the total adult population living in the country, making it the most common mental illness. There are many ways to cope with it, and cleaning is one of them.
It is a case of mindfulness. Taking the time out and energy out to focus on a task while being mindful of it helps you distance yourself from how you are feeling mentally, thereby reducing the impact of what you are feeling at the moment. It isn’t necessarily a distraction because you don’t end up going back to the same place you were in before you started the task. Even if you take out ten minutes, focus on what you’re doing (for example, cleaning the dishes) and nothing else, the nature of the task will help soothe you.
It is also a case of repetitive behavior and how our mind responds to it. The familiarity and repetitiveness of the task is what puts your minds at ease when we do it. It helps you channel your emotions into something simple and easy to understand, helping you alleviate your anxiety at the moment.
The third reason why cleaning helps with anxiety is that it helps you feel more in control of your surroundings. One of the main effects of anxiety is the lack of control one feels over their emotions. You feel helpless and lost and it only makes the situation worse. Observing your surroundings and taking control of them with tasks like scrubbing the bathroom floor clean, doing the dishes, folding your laundry, makes you feel more in touch with your environment and more in control of what is happening around you.
So What Can Go Wrong with Cleaning when You’re Anxious?
Now, here comes the problem with taking this approach. It’s a slippery slope. You may just get drawn to the short-lived feeling of relief and use this as your only coping mechanism. When you start to rely on cleaning as a task to help you get rid of your anxiety instead of taking care of the root cause of it, you become obsessive. You crave that feeling of gratification and go out of your way to reach that stage. It leads to obsessive cleaning, which is another issue in itself.
Anxiety cleaning and its harmful repercussions
This is when you use cleaning as a means to escape from what you’re feeling. Escapism is a form of running away from your problems, so to speak, to find some emotional and mental stability.
It’s a fight or flight tactic for self-preservation where your first and only response is flight. You can find a hobby and hyperfocus on it when you need an outlet every time you feel overwhelmed. It can be a sport you enjoy, food, diving into work, or abuse of certain drugs.
Clearly, it can be a bad thing. It isn’t healthy, and it doesn’t address the main reason why you are feeling the way you are feeling. It is not a solution-oriented approach, just a mere band-aid to the deep wound.
Cleaning when you are anxious can become a form of escapism when you feel like you are losing control of your surroundings and need a haven from it all. What was once soothing soon becomes a dependency, and you end up relying on it for solace. It becomes a ‘need’ to clean, which can create obsessive or compulsive behaviors, causing more harm than good.
What are the signs your cleaning habits are becoming compulsive?
Here are some tell-tale signs that mean that your cleaning habits are getting out of hand:
- When you don’t feel good after you finish cleaning because you feel like you haven’t done enough
- When you end up canceling your plans for the day or postponing them because you haven’t met your cleaning goal for the day
- When you feel like your anxiety is back as soon as there is even a little bit of a mess in your space
- When you cannot handle being in cluttered places that aren’t your own and you end up feeling overwhelmed
- When the level of joy or accomplishment you feel after finishing your cleaning is diminishing over time and you feel like you need to do more
So how do you manage to keep cleaning as a means of alleviating anxiety and not overindulge and let it turn into something more harmful?
Ways to Stick to Cleaning as a Healthy Habit
Slow down on the cleaning spree and take a step back
The first step in ensuring that your cleaning habits remain healthy is to stop when you find yourself spiraling into a cleaning spree. Remember that cleaning isn’t the solution for the problem, it’s only a means to help you calm down so you can tackle the issue at hand pragmatically. When you do that, take a step back and just stop. Try to not finish the task and distract yourself instead. Go out for a walk, go to a café, read a book. Take some space from your cleaning habits.
Acknowledge what you are doing
You won’t know how to alter your behavior for the better unless you accept that what you’re doing is problematic. If you don’t look at it as a problem, how are you going to fix it? Just like breaking any form of addiction, the first step is to accept and acknowledge to yourself that you aren’t in the best place. Then you can start to work on how to resolve the issue.
Set your boundaries by timing yourself
Another great way of managing your need to clean everything all at once is to time yourself. Force yourself to stop when the timer runs out, no matter how bad the itch to go back could be. This way you can set boundaries for yourself and separate your feelings from the action. When cleaning becomes compulsive, what ends up happening is that your feeling of joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction comes only when you finish it. Your feelings become dependent on your actions. By separating yourself from it by setting a timer, you also slowly start to separate your feelings from the task and detach.
Speak to someone about it and ask for help
Always, always, always ask for help when you need it. Don’t be shy, embarrassed, or afraid. Your support system could include your friends, family, medical professionals, or anyone you feel safe and comfortable with. Tell them how you’re feeling, what you’re feeling and how your actions are affecting you. It’ll help to get an outsider’s perspective on your situation and it’ll also reduce the burden you’re putting on yourself by shouldering all of these emotions and feelings on your own.
Anxiety can be a crippling disorder, but there are healthy and safe ways of coping with it. Cleaning is a great tool that can be used to alleviate the stress and feeling of anxiousness, but you should be careful to not rely on it too heavily, or else it will become harmful. The joy of cleaning lies within the task itself, and you shouldn’t look for more in it.