The Surprisingly Emotional Side of Pandemic Home Projects

updated Sep 15, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Like many Americans, my husband and I felt the 2020 lockdown offered a unique window for home updating. It’s not like we can take the vacation we’d planned, so why not spend the money on something else exciting? This summer, we decided to embark on a long-dreamed-of home project: a full kitchen remodel.

Our 1970s ranch house kitchen was definitely ripe for some updating. We’re not hosting dinner parties for 20 these days, and after six months of staring at our own four walls, it seemed like a change of scenery would only do us good. With a bit of elbow grease and a lot of trial and error, we’ve now spent the last eight weeks DIY-ing our way through demo and reno.

I found the endeavor to be a surprising rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. Some days I felt thrilled to make such a dramatic, beautiful change to my home—others I felt stressed, displaced, and like my kitchen was just one more place the world was crumbling around me.

If, like me, you’ve spent quarantine tearing down walls and obsessing over paint swatches, you may be nodding your head right about now. “It is very common for individuals to cope with feelings of anxiety by cleaning out closets, or removing clutter in their homes,” says NYC-based psychotherapist Paige Rechtman, LMHC. “In a way, remodeling takes this coping mechanism to the next level.” 

If you’re contemplating a home project (even a small one) during COVID-19, it may be wise to consider the mental health effects of changing your space. Here’s a look at how doing so can be a significantly emotional journey, for good and… not-so-good.

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Home projects are disruptive, and your brain doesn’t like that.

In my desire to see my old kitchen turned sparkly and new, I skipped blissfully into remodeling like Dorothy down the yellow brick road. I had not anticipated the metaphorical flying monkeys, in the form of stress and anxiety.

Literally demolishing part of my home sanctuary during an already off-the-charts stressful time was jarring, if not a little traumatizing. When my husband ripped out the last of our cabinets, I nearly cried to see the “heart of the home” lying in ruins. I’m a nutritionist and (normally) an avid cook. How would I create nourishing meals for our family with a heap of rubble for a cooking space? As the weeks stretched on, I did my best by chopping veggies on makeshift countertops and washing dishes in the bathtub—but these workarounds added to my sense of frustration and inconvenience during the pandemic.

Turns out, my exasperation was a pretty typical response to the situation. Your home represents a stable anchor in these times of upheaval, and altering your physical space can disrupt that sense of stability, according to Rechtman. “Our physical environment can directly impact the state of our mental health, and can also reflect back to us how we’re feeling,” she says.

If changes to your space are messing with your head, try dialing down heightened emotions with a mindfulness practice. “Practicing mindfulness and living in the present moment is one of the most useful tools for dealing with change,” says Rechtman. “In reality, the fear of change is really about the fear of uncertainty. But when you practice mindfulness and living in the present, you’re exercising muscles that will help you cope with and accept uncertainty.”

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But the process (and outcome) can pay off.

Pandemic home projects can bring some stellar mental health benefits. By sprucing up your space, you’re expressing yourself creatively, potentially adding value to your home, and maybe even getting a little exercise—all of which can brighten your mood.

Meanwhile, tackling projects in your home can create a welcome sense of distraction and self-determination amidst the chaos raging outside. “With the pandemic happening, everything about our future feels uncertain,” says Rechtman. “Remodeling your home is a way to take charge of your space and your day-to-day experience, and gain a sense of control over something.”

Creating a better, more soothing sanctuary is another bonus to pandemic remodeling. If your space isn’t currently a place of refuge, changing it up can make a difference to your emotional outlook. “Feeling unsafe or suffocated in your space can lead to deeper emotional feelings of feeling stuck, trapped, or anxious,” says Rechtman. “Being in a space that is open and comfortable can help you feel more comfortable in your mind and your body.” And you don’t have to overhaul an entire room to feel a boost. Even small projects might bring a sense of refreshment and peace. 

How to know if changing your space is a good idea right now:

Clearly, switching things up in your home, whether busting down walls or just, say, hanging a new art print, is a potential game-changer for our sense of well-being—in one direction or another. So how do you know if pandemic remodeling is a good idea? “Before embarking on a home remodeling project during the pandemic, check in with yourself and how you’re feeling,” advises Rechtman. “What is your true intention for this change? How do you want to feel once you’ve completed it?” If you’re feeling off your center and in need of comfort from familiar surroundings, it may be best to wait on a major domestic facelift. Perhaps a smaller update, like a fresh coat of paint or rearranging furniture, would make a better choice.

Now that my kitchen boasts swirly vanilla countertops, sleek new appliances, and a functional sink (best thing ever!), I’m thrilled with the results of my remodel. As the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on, having a bit more beauty in my home has certainly brightened my days. Still, I do wish I’d done a bit more mental preparation for the shock of change. If you’re contemplating a Covid-19 home update, take a little emotional stock to decide for yourself if now’s the time for transformations large, medium, or small.