Why cleaning and organising is so therapeutic when we're stressed

Cleaning helps us filter out the larger picture by giving us something to have power over — even if it's something as small as organizing our books by color.

Now that much of the population is working from home and self-quarantining to help curb the spread of COVID-19, you may have noticed a sharp increase in how often you clean your home — and not just because it's a necessary aspect of staying healthy right now (or because your clutter keeps taunting you).

"People are feeling increasingly overwhelmed and powerless in the face of COVID-19," said Maggie Vaughan, a New York-based psychotherapist. "The uncertainty about where the situation's headed is intolerable for us."

When things feel far outside our control (like the infuriating number of people who still aren't taking the pandemic seriously), we turn to rituals like cleaning to self-soothe.

As for what, exactly, makes cleaning such an effective stress-reliever during times like these, it goes a little something like this:

Cleaning provides us with a sense of control over our environment.

Anxiety starts brewing when you perceive a threat — in this case, a contagious and scary illness rapidly spreading around the world. But for anxiety to become a problem, you need to both perceive a threat and feel uncertain about your ability to effectively handle it.

"Humans crave structure and familiarity, especially during times of uncertainty," said Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Philadelphia. "When we seek out ways to reduce feelings of helplessness, cleaning is one of the ways we might decide to do that."

If you're someone who already uses cleaning as a go-to stress reliever, the threat of COVID-19 is likely to amplify the need to scrub your feelings away.

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"We have a tendency to cling to our familiar patterns, especially during periods of heightened stress," Zuckerman said, in large part because the brain takes mental shortcuts to conserve its power during times like these.

It's easier to rely on already-existing behavioral patterns than use up the extra cognitive function necessary to pause, take an inventory of one's situation and surroundings, and make a conscious decision to engage in a new behavior, Zuckerman explained.

Cleaning helps us filter out the larger picture, which is overwhelmingly uncertain, by giving us something to have power over — even if it's something as small as organizing our books by color.

"We know the end result and we know how to get there," Vaughan said. "That's a very comforting notion."

When you scrub hard enough or vacuum briskly enough, cleaning can act as a mini-workout and bring about the same neurochemical benefits as exercise.

The act of cleaning offers up a soothing one-two punch of mindfulness and endorphins.

Cleaning is a form of ritual, or repetitive behavior that's repeated and predictable (think: scrubbing or sweeping motions).

"People like to be able to predict things, to know what's coming," Vaughan said. "From a survival perspective, predictability allows us to plan and better protect ourselves from potential threats." During times of increased chaos (like a pandemic), our penchant for cleaning often increases.

It ends up becoming an informal mindfulness practice of sorts. "In this state, you're often able to observe outside thoughts, concerns, and fears with less reactivity and distress," Vaughan said. "Not that we deliberately choose to practice mindfulness in this way, but it could be an unconscious reason why we gravitate toward cleaning in times of heightened anxiety."

Plus, when you scrub hard enough or vacuum briskly enough, cleaning can act as a mini-workout and bring about the same neurochemical benefits as exercise. Besides reducing stress hormones, exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, which are the body's natural mood-boosters and pain-killers.

The post-cleanup feelings of accomplishment can spill over into other areas of our lives.

Pun totally intended. When you tackle — and conquer — a challenging cleaning project (say, overhauling that chaotic closet of yours), you're more likely to also feel capable of tackling other areas of your life that feel daunting or out of control.

"This is a general principle that works no matter what coping mechanism is employed," said Forrest Talley, a California-based clinical psychologist. "Greater confidence encourages people to tackle other challenges in life that may have seemed too far a reach in the past."

It's healthy to use cleaning to clear your mind, gain perspective, and take a break from your worries. But it shouldn't be used to hide from problems.Forrest Talley, California-based clinical psychologist

Of course, it helps if you're intentional in applying the sense of accomplishment that comes from cleaning. "That requires you to reflect on having been able to take control of an anxious situation, take reasonable steps to deal with the problem, and succeed in bringing about an effective solution," Talley said.

"The question you need to ask next is, 'How can I use this same mindset or set of skills (logical problem solving, planning, taking action) in other areas of my life?'" he added, such as how best to protect yourself and your family from coming down with COVID-19.

Going overboard in the cleaning department, though, can stress you out more.

If you're cleaning to avoid internal discomfort such as worry or sadness, these feelings will only be temporarily relieved by your tidying rituals.

"However, as soon as you stop cleaning or start to mess up your newly cleaned space, your anxiety will rebound," Zuckerman said. "But this time, a bit higher than before."

This is because you've just taught yourself that you're unable to handle these feelings, that they're too scary and uncomfortable, so to feel better, they need to be avoided. And the fact that cleaning relieved these feelings before will compel you to use this modus operandi the next time icky feelings start to fester.

"It's healthy to use cleaning to clear your mind, gain perspective, and take a break from your worries," Talley said. "But it shouldn't be used to hide from problems."

If you clean primarily when you're anxious about problems you're facing and rarely take action to deal with them, that means cleaning is an avoidance response rather than a momentary way to relieve anxiety to effectively tackle your problems soon after.

If you're cleaning to avoid internal discomfort such as worry or sadness, these feelings will only be temporarily relieved by your tidying rituals. 

Here's how to use cleaning to de-stress and better cope with your emotions.

To make sure your cleaning habits continue to relieve stress and don't morph into an avoidance tactic, experts recommend setting boundaries and being honest with yourself when things start to go awry.

Try setting aside a distinct time for cleaning, such as first thing in the morning. "Cleaning in the morning sets the stage for a literal new beginning, inspiring hope and facilitating a sense of well-being," Vaughan said. "By clearing away environmental distractions, the mind feels more settled, freer to focus on other tasks."

Make sure to limit the amount of time you dedicate to cleaning, and once the time you've allotted is used up, mosey on with the rest of your day.

"The mental health benefits of cleaning can be reversed if cleaning keeps you from tending to more important things, or when you become consumed with getting absolutely everything in order," Vaughan said.

If you find yourself getting carried away (attacking your grout with a toothbrush, perhaps), setting a timer for tasks can improve focus and efficiency.

It's also important to call yourself out if you notice you're using cleaning as a means of avoiding what really needs to be done, such as a looming project with a deadline.

"An easy way to determine that's what you're doing is to evaluate your anxiety level while cleaning," Vaughan suggested. "If it hasn't decreased since you started cleaning, you might need to level with yourself, limit your cleaning time, then commit to facing more important work."

The idea is to learn how to sit with the uncomfortable feelings instead of cleaning to avoid them: "Notice the feelings, but don't engage them, and don't try to not have them, either," Zuckerman said. "They will pass."

And until they do, use grounding techniques to center yourself, such as focusing on your breathing, touching something in the room and focusing on its texture, or planting your feet firmly on the floor.

Of course, breaking the avoidance cycle alone doesn't always work, and that's OK. "Understandably, COVID-19 has triggered OCD-like behavior in many of us," Vaughan said. "For most of us, this new behavior points to increased anxiety caused by uncertainty and a real threat of getting sick."

If your fears and anxiety last throughout the day or don't let up after a few days, Vaughan recommends seeking emotional support from a mental health professional, since an excessive need to clean can point to an underlying anxiety disorder.

"Therapy will help you determine which behaviors are healthy versus avoidant," Zuckerman said. "Once you gain awareness of the blueprint of your behaviors, you can begin to change unhealthy patterns."

- This article originally appeared on HuffPost US

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