If You Have OCD, Cleaning Can Be Triggering — Here’s Some Tools for Coping with It

published Oct 13, 2022
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

People who aren’t familiar with the realities of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) often throw around the term flippantly, using it to describe a desire to keep things impeccably neat. 

These common misconceptions not only diminish the toll the disorder takes on people’s lives, but they also serve to further isolate those who have OCD themes that fall into some of the more stereotyped categories, such as perfectionism and contamination. With these themes, individuals may outwardly present like the OCD stereotype, but for them, cleaning and organizing aren’t enjoyable, they’re highly triggering and distressing. 

“When people who don’t have OCD say ‘I’m so OCD,’ they’re not experiencing that fear and that anxiety,” says Annabella Hagen, the clinical director of Mindset Family Therapy. “The difference with OCD is that you have that fear, you have that worry.” 

With this in mind, I pulled from my own experiences — I was diagnosed when I was nine years old — and spoke with mental health professionals who specialize in treating OCD to assemble a few tips to help others who struggle with this disorder and cleaning.

Stop Avoiding

“I think people would be shocked to learn that you can have OCD and live in a messy house,” says Dr. Patrick McGrath, the head of clinical services at NOCD, an OCD therapy provider.

For those whose OCD is triggered by cleaning, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of avoiding the task altogether. In my own life, I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t clean my home beyond the necessary, knowing that if I did, it would open the floodgates of my perfectionism, and my “just right” compulsion wouldn’t allow me to stop.

When triggered, people with OCD typically experience a flood of intrusive thoughts, feelings, or urges. With cleaning, this could manifest as a fear that touching the floor might cause them to get sick or that not cleaning perfectly might precipitate a terrible event later on in the day. These thoughts cause a great deal of anxiety, and to deal with it, many people go straight to avoidance. 

Sometimes, if a task cannot be avoided, OCD sufferers use other actions (compulsions) in hopes of neutralizing the threat. When I clean, I often find myself wiping the same spot over and over again until I feel like it looks and feels perfect. The repetition of compulsions is not only annoying, it often holds me back from things I’d rather be doing. And on top of that, the more I do my compulsions, the worse I feel. It also reaffirms to my brain that the trigger was a real threat, so the next time I experience it the urge to avoid and perform compulsions is even stronger. 

This process is what clinicians have dubbed the “OCD cycle.” As you can see, avoidance precipitates compulsions, which only serves to keep the individual stuck in the cycle. Doing a scary task despite the fear it causes is the first step to getting unstuck from OCD. 

Challenge OCD

To stop avoidance, it’s important to challenge OCD head-on. This concept is the entire ethos behind Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) which is the gold-standard treatment for OCD. ERP involves confronting OCD triggers, then learning to handle the tough emotions that arise without avoiding or doing compulsions.

After completing an intensive OCD treatment program, I learned how to implement exposure in my own life. When cleaning, I’ll do a task imperfectly or I’ll only clean part of my apartment. Sometimes I’ll set a timer, allocating an hour to tidying up. After the time’s up, I’m finished, regardless of if OCD feels like I am or not. 

Setting up exposures is a helpful step for tackling cleaning if you have OCD. But, if you haven’t been treated for and diagnosed with OCD in a clinical setting yet, it might not be the best option to do this on your own. “You don’t have to do this alone,” McGrath advises. “You can absolutely reach out and work with a therapist who can assist you through this whole process. There is help available.”

He also reminds people with OCD that you don’t have to tackle everything all at once. Starting by facing your worst fear might feel overwhelming, but you can still challenge the disorder while taking a gradual approach. “We’re not going to ask you to clean your entire apartment or to leave everything dirty all at once,” he explains. “What if we started with a two-by-two section, and that’s what you did today? And then tomorrow, we’ll add a little bit more to that.”

Have Some Self-Compassion

Challenging OCD is hard work. It takes a lot of energy and can feel very defeating. To top it all off, people with OCD are predisposed to blame themselves for the things they struggle with, usually feeling a great degree of guilt, shame, or disgust associated with their obsessions and compulsions. “When people have OCD, they put themselves down, they think they should know better, or they blame themselves,” Hagen explains. “So, self-compassion is essential.” 

She recommends creating some self-compassion statements — which are short phrases or mantras that convey self-love, care, and acceptance — that work well for you. Utilize them when you’re cleaning and feel your intrusive thoughts and desires to perform compulsions arise.

Some of my favorite self-compassion statements are: “It’s OK to not be perfect; I am still worthy” and “It’s OK to feel this emotion.” Even just acknowledging that you are going through a hard time can be very validating and healing. Because self-compassion is not something that comes naturally to me (or to many people with OCD), it’s become my favorite part of challenging the disorder. For me, taking time for self-compassion is taking time to remember to love myself. I deserve that moment, and you do, too.