“Extreme Cleaning” Took Over My Life — Here’s How I Reined It In

published May 23, 2024
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
How cleaning soothes you
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

We’re spotlighting the link between how we feel on the inside and how our spaces look and feel in our Mind, Body & Home collection. This content is presented by DoorDash; it was created independently by our editorial team.

I only became a tidy person after moving into an 18-foot travel trailer for a guiding job after college. The job was stressful, and my claustrophobic-feeling anxiety would heighten when I returned to the trailer after a 14-hour day, crunching across dirt on the floor and stepping over laundry. The space didn’t feel calming, but I had nowhere to go that felt relaxing. 

Content warning: The content in this story discusses mental health disorder(s). If this content isn’t for you, we understand. But if you are struggling or experiencing any mental health concerns, please take a look at our resources section below and seek help from a professional healthcare provider.

So I started cleaning every day, putting away each item as I used it and buying a little broom to sweep the floors. It turned out that being in a clean environment did wonders for my anxiety. I was exhausted from work, but my trailer felt like a little haven. I was proud of how it looked, and cleaning felt relaxing and rewarding. It was a habit I could maintain.

I left that trailer after a year, and as I moved between homes, I became more particular about my space. I loved setting it up to feel spacious yet cozy, and I prioritized a clutter-free living area. My mind might have felt jumbled, but my space was organized. And it’s not just me — the benefits of a clean space are well-known.

“Living in a clean home contributes significantly to mental well-being,” says Courtney Glashow, owner and psychotherapist of Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, New Jersey. “A home that’s tidy and clean can give a sense of calm and control, and help reduce feelings of overwhelm and stress.” She also told me that the act of cleaning itself can help alleviate anxiety, thanks to the therapeutic nature of repetitive movements, plus the accomplishment of completing tasks. 

While being tidy isn’t a bad thing, I became extra invested in keeping my space clean after deciding to live alone in mid-2023. Having roommates had taken the pressure off my need to put everything away — I’d occasionally leave dishes in the sink, as there was usually something already there, and thought little of it. Now, the dishes were all mine, and I saw them as a harbinger of an inevitable slide into disarray. 

As the months went by, my focus on cleaning started to impact other things. I’d scan the rooms I walked through, interrupting whatever task I was doing to sweep dust or wipe down the counter. If I noticed toothpaste in the sink, I’d clean it before going to sleep. I couldn’t focus on work if the windows were streaked, and I tensed up when friends came over and splashed water on the counter or left fingerprints on the coffee table. 

When I told my therapist I was concerned about my partner returning from abroad because I had become “somewhat extreme” in keeping my home clean, she asked how often I was sweeping and tidying up. 

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe a dozen times a day?” She looked so taken aback that I wished I’d lied. She suggested bringing it down to sweeping three times a day. I nodded eagerly so she’d think I was good at therapy while trying to hide my alarm and thought that I’d maybe compromise with six times a day.

It reached a breaking point this past fall during a podcast interview. I was sitting on my couch with an unfortunate view of a giant dust bunny under the bookshelf. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. At one point the interviewer asked if I was OK, and a few minutes later I missed an entire question. Finally, apologizing profusely, I pulled off my headphones and crouched next to the offending cat hair, scraping it into my hand and depositing it in the garbage. It was a weird move.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said, pulling my headphones back on. “I thought I heard my cat getting into something.” I struggled to keep focus. After that, I realized, it may be time to find some different coping mechanisms and get a grip on this desperation for perfection.

How cleaning and anxiety are connected

My desire for a tidy home and the anxiety relief from cleaning had tipped over the edge. Now, anything that looked out of place created a sense of failure and reduced my productivity. 

While there are some parallels to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the difference is in how intrusive and repetitive the thoughts and behaviors feel. OCD rituals can become excessive and time-consuming, significantly interfering with daily life.

Conversely, anxiety-mitigating habits can involve routines that promote feelings of security and control without causing distress. “The key difference lies in the degree of interference with daily life and the level of distress experienced,” Glashow says. I was distracted by cleaning, but when I saw it was impacting other parts of my life, I knew I had to change things up. 

This kind of anxiety-inducing perfection manifesting in extreme cleaning isn’t uncommon. I had been setting unrealistic standards and criticizing myself when I didn’t reach my goals. Keeping my home clean was initially a way to manage anxiety, but it started to contribute to it, and my healthy habits spiraled. 

Glashow offered tips for helping rewire these patterns, all of which have been very manageable. 

Make small changes.

When ‘good’ habits start to feel overwhelming, it’s important to practice self-awareness and self-compassion,” Glashow says, encouraging me to start simply by challenging unrealistic expectations. She suggested implementing small, manageable changes to routines, which can help regain a sense of control and prevent that fear of spiraling. 

So I started leaving things (minorly) imperfect. The curtains slightly crooked, waiting to straighten the rug until after the interview, waving goodbye to dinner guests before cleaning the kitchen. Did I have to fight the urge to clean the refrigerator drawer immediately upon noticing a sticky spot? Absolutely. Did I get to it later after I finished dinner? Also yes. The world didn’t end, and my home didn’t crumble around me. 

Practice mindfulness and cognitive reframing.

Glashow also suggested working on mindfulness and cognitive reframing: Reminding myself that I’m not a failure if I don’t flatten my recycling boxes immediately and that it’s unrealistic to keep an entire home clean while working full-time, exercising, cooking, socializing, and playing every New York Times word game.

For me, achieving this balance involves setting boundaries and incorporating relaxation techniques like healthy exercise and deep breathing. These also help manage overwhelming emotions without fixating on perfection.

I know that prioritizing a tidy living space isn’t inherently bad. I also know that cleaning as a coping mechanism for anxiety can get out of hand, and that scaling back on those habits while being kind to myself in the process is the best way for me to achieve balance — both with mental health and a clean home.

Mental Health Resources

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with mental health and need support, visit one of the following websites below or call any of their helplines: