What to Do if a Messy Home Makes You Anxious (and Why Cleaning Isn’t Always the Answer)

published Jun 18, 2024
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A pile of laundry on a chair between a bed and a small table with potted plant
Credit: Sarah Crowley

When I was growing up, I never considered myself much of a neat person. I liked my spaces a certain way, but it felt more like controlled chaos than tidy. As I got older, living with roommates and then eventually buying a house with my spouse made me realize that I was far more particular than I thought. As someone with ADHD and anxiety, it was almost ironic to discover that cleaning was my coping mechanism. It gave me a sense of control over my environment, and I lived by the phrase “tidy house, tidy mind” — because, for me, it was literal.

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.

Returning one piece of clutter to its rightful home was a gateway to getting “stuck” in cleaning mode, so eventually I started creating rules around the house to manage it. Countertops should be as clear and uncluttered as possible. Living areas must be pristine. Closed storage was essential for keeping everything out of sight (even though my ADHD meant this was a recipe for losing everything). I needed to scrub the entire house before guests arrived. Otherwise, I felt like a failure.

I thought I was controlling my environment, but my environment was controlling me. The slightest bit of clutter would send me spiraling into overwhelm until eventually, it started wearing on my relationship. I’d grown up required to maintain a certain level of cleanliness, but my anxiety had made it exponentially worse — while my husband had grown up in a far more relaxed environment where clutter was the sign of a life well-lived.

While it’s pretty standard to be stressed out by clutter, cleaning to cope with anxiety can fix problems and cause them — which is why it’s so important to find out if it’s actually helping you or, like it was in my situation, making everything a little bit worse.

Why does clutter give me anxiety? 

Everyone is different, but there are a few reasons why a messy or cluttered home might cause anxiety. For some people, the anxiety caused by clutter is functional. If you’re unable to perform necessary daily tasks — like opening your closet to get dressed and make it to work on time — then it’s natural to feel stressed or anxious about the mess, and cleaning can help.

For others, a messy home can cause anxiety because it’s so visual. The dishes piling up in your kitchen are a constant reminder that you have unfinished tasks, and — because you see them every time you walk into the kitchen — this can cause more anxiety than unfinished tasks that are out of sight (and out of mind).

In other cases, however, clutter can cause anxiety for an entirely different reason. “Sometimes it has to do with feeling in control,” explains KC Davis, a Houston-based therapist, mom of two, and author of How to Keep House While Drowning. “Because a lot of anxiety has to do with a kind of feeling out of control. There’s too much to do, we kind of feel like we’re on the brink of feeling overwhelmed … we’re worried about something we can’t control.”

As a result, Davis explains that controlling your environment and keeping it tidy can help soothe that feeling — or at least not contribute to it — which is why mess can be so anxiety-inducing when it does occur. 

The downside? While there’s nothing wrong with using cleaning to cope with anxiety, it might not always help as much as you think.

Cleaning is a complicated coping mechanism

It’s important to remember that cleaning is what Davis calls a “neutral” coping mechanism (meaning it doesn’t exist on a scale of right or wrong), but there is another dynamic for measuring what coping mechanisms you should rely on: Whether or not they’re working for you. “Because sometimes it does, right?” Davis adds. “But what we want to look at … [is] the effect that that coping mechanism is having on our lives.” 

If you’re becoming so dependent on cleaning to cope with your anxiety that it begins to create problems, Davis explains, that’s when it’s time to check in. Are you prioritizing having a clean home over your relationship with your partner? Spending time with your children? Taking care of your well-being? Is it the only way you cope with stress?

“Everything works until it doesn’t work,” explains Talissa Dorsaint, who holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and is the founder of Tali Dee, Ph.D. “So the best question you want to ask yourself in this situation is, what is the coping mechanism sort of holding in this moment?”

Cleaning might help ease your anxiety for a moment, but, as Dorsaint adds, it’s also important to dive into what that coping mechanism is covering up. Are you stressed about work? Money? Relationships? Is cleaning the best way to address those emotions? Or is there another way you can show yourself compassion?

“We all deserve to have a wide breadth of coping skills and for those coping skills to be flexible,” Davis emphasizes. “Where we get into trouble is when we get locked into like a kind of a very narrow scope of what we can use to cope, and then our use of that coping skill starts to cause problems of itself.” 

How can you manage your anxiety besides cleaning?

“Allowing yourself to become aware is the first step,” Davis says. “What is it that stresses me out about this? Is it that I don’t have enough counter space and that I can’t find my clothes? Oh, that’s a functional issue. So let’s work on just functional systems.” 

However, if you’re OK with how everything is functioning but it feels like you shouldn’t be — like having a laundry chair in the corner is somehow a moral failure — then it’s time to work on letting go of that messaging (even though it’s easier said than done).

“If you aren’t necessarily aware of the patterns of how you sort of rile yourself up, it can be really overwhelming not just for you, but for the people around you,” Dorsaint adds, emphasizing that self-compassion is critical. “Find ways to identify, ‘Why do I feel that I need to hold this up? Is there another way that I can manage the difficulties in my life and give myself some space?’” 

If therapy is affordable and accessible, that’s a great place to start — especially if your anxiety around having a messy home is interfering with your daily life. However, if that’s not feasible for you, Dorsaint recommends adding other coping mechanisms to your toolbox. Instead of reaching for the vacuum, try calling a friend, practicing deep breathing, journaling, or going for a walk. 

From there? Davis suggests finding creative ways to work with your unique brain so you can have a functional space and reduce your anxiety. For some people, that might mean ditching the open-shelving kitchen that others might love. If you have too many belongings in a small space to be truly minimalist, it might be time to experiment with a more clutter-friendly maximalist aesthetic. 

“Focus on creating beauty instead of perfection,” she adds, recommending that it can be helpful to focus on function first, then visuals. “You can make messy spaces beautiful.” 

Mental Health Resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with your mental health and needs support, visit one of the following websites below or call any of their helplines:

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 was presented by a sponsor; it was created independently by our editorial team.