The 5 Most Important Boundaries to Set if You Struggle with “Stress Cleaning”

published May 9, 2024
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Stress cleaning is a common trope in film and television. A highly anxious person — usually a woman — is portrayed as a neurotic, “Type A” who cleans obsessively, especially during times of heightened emotion. Think: Monica from Friends, especially when she frantically cleans Chandler and Joey’s bathroom while Phoebe confronts Chandler about their relationship. Her character’s actions are an obvious exaggeration, but the overall theme of cleaning when anxious is a pervasive one.

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.

Like many stereotypes, this one is rooted in some truth. I can’t tell you how often I’ve found myself scrubbing the bathtub or meticulously wiping down every piece of furniture in my living room when I’m stressed. And I’m not alone!

For many people, cleaning, organizing, and decluttering can help reduce anxiety. “The act of cleaning can distract them by keeping them busy and task-oriented,” says Rachel Goldberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “It [also] helps them feel a sense of control.”

That might sound like a pretty good problem to have, but in reality it can spiral into something unhealthy and obsessive, rather than positive and productive. Here’s why “anxiety cleaning” happens, plus tips for how to deal with it effectively.

What is “anxiety cleaning”?

According to licensed mental health counselor Natalie Rosado, anxiety cleaning — sometimes called stress cleaning — “is a behavior characterized by an overwhelming urge to clean or tidy up in response to feelings of anxiety, stress, or distress.”

It’s important to note that anxiety cleaning isn’t the same thing as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Although stress cleaning can be a symptom of OCD, the behavior itself doesn’t automatically mean that you have OCD.

Stress cleaning happens in response to feelings of anxiety, but typically the anxiety itself has nothing to do with cleanliness. “Instead, it arises when someone feels uncertain or overwhelmed in other areas of their life,” says Goldberg. The physical act of cleaning, then, is just a way to manage the overwhelming feelings of anxiety. With OCD, on the other hand, “Cleaning behaviors are driven by distressing thoughts and rigid compulsions.”

Why do people stress clean?

Simply put, cleaning is soothing. That may seem incredulous to some, but it’s true! When I feel stressed, I often reach for disinfecting wipes or grab my dust buster. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something inherently calming about wiping down the counters or vacuuming all the crumbs hidden under the couch. And that’s not unusual!

“Anxiety is about control,” says Hannah Yang, a licensed clinical psychologist. “When we clean, we are controlling our environment in the moment.”

Additionally, cleaning can help your overall mental health, says Yang. “Having a clean and decluttered home definitely helps us feel calm and at peace,” she explains. Cleaning also comes with a tangible result — the dust-free floor after vacuuming, for example — so “we get a sense of accomplishment.” The feeling of accomplishment works to trigger the release of dopamine, she says, which can further help decrease anxiety.

Another big benefit to stress cleaning is the physical exertion of it. “Anxiety can bring nervous energy,” says Goldberg. “The act of cleaning can use up some of that energy, resulting in a calming effect.”

And the research agrees. In a 2022 study, people engaged in either actual or simulated cleaning activities and both situations reduced anxiety.

How to tell when anxiety cleaning becoming problematic

As far as coping mechanisms go, cleaning doesn’t seem all that bad. For many people, stress cleaning can be a productive and helpful way to quell anxiety, says Yang. However, it isn’t always healthy.

When I’m feeling especially anxious or stressed, I often turn to cleaning — and sometimes this can work in my favor. I always have clean laundry, my chore list gets done on time, and my house looks relatively tidy most days. But that doesn’t mean it’s always productive.

I’ll admit that there are times when stress cleaning gets in the way of other responsibilities. Or when I find myself hyper-focusing on a specific (and, honestly, unimportant) aspect of cleaning. For example, procrastinating on a work project while clearing the dust from underneath the baseboards (yes, I’ve actually done that).

Suddenly, what was meant to be a quick, 20-minute project to clear my mind has turned into a two-hour ordeal. So, where is the line? How can you tell when your stress-cleaning habit is becoming a problem?

“Anxiety cleaning becomes problematic when it interferes with daily functioning, leads to excessive or compulsive cleaning rituals, and causes significant distress or impairment in other areas of life,” Rosado explains.

According to her and Goldberg, some other signs that may indicate a problem include the following:

  • Spending an abnormal amount of time on a given cleaning task.
  • Prioritizing cleaning over other responsibilities.
  • Feeling compelled to clean even when you’re sick or tired.
  • Constantly reorganizing your surroundings.
  • Meticulously cleaning or re-cleaning items in your home.
  • Canceling plans to finish a cleaning task.
  • Ignoring your own needs (like eating dinner or going to sleep) due to cleaning.

But there’s another, even more important, factor to consider: how you feel.

If you’re wondering whether or not your stress-cleaning habit is problematic, focus on your feelings, says Yang. When stress cleaning is healthy, it will leave you feeling more energized, focused, or relaxed. “If it’s a productive emotional release, it should feel like your anxiety has gone down,” she explains. On the other hand, unhealthy and unproductive cleaning will leave you feeling the same or worse than you did before.

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How to make sure you’re cleaning productively

If you’re a stress cleaner, here are some tips to make sure that you do it in a productive, not obsessive, way.

Pay attention to triggers

When it comes to stress cleaning, I’d argue that the first step is to develop more awareness around it, such as knowing the difference between productive vs. obsessive cleaning (and the signs to look for) and your triggers. “Pay attention to when the need to clean seems more pressing,” advises Goldberg. By recognizing your triggers, you can understand your anxiety better.

This will also help you develop a better understanding of the way you use stress cleaning. “You can increase your awareness by paying attention to [whether] you feel better after cleaning or worse,” says Emma Kimball, a licensed therapist in Atlanta. If cleaning consistently makes you feel worse or more anxious, it’s an unhealthy habit.

Set boundaries for yourself

Another important factor to focus on is time. Think about how much time you spend on any given task (or on cleaning in general). Are you pushing aside other responsibilities to make room for cleaning? Do these tasks take far longer than expected?

For me, anxiety combined with ADHD means I sometimes hyper-focus on a task to the point where I (unintentionally) spend way too much time doing it. So, although cleaning doesn’t stem from an unhealthy obsession, the result is still the same: counterproductive.

“Trying to create boundaries and limits around cleaning can help make it productive rather than obsessive,” advises Goldberg.

Self-imposed boundaries can look like the following:

  • Setting a time limit for any given task.
  • Creating a cleaning schedule.
  • Focusing on only one cleaning task (and then stopping for the day).
  • Developing a consistent cleaning routine (for example, cleaning for 20 minutes right when you get home from work).
  • Breaking large cleaning tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Try other methods of anxiety relief

If you notice that you don’t need to clean (as in, there’s no actual mess, but you’re feeling the urge to clean anyway), try other forms of anxiety relief, such as exercise, journaling, or meditation.

Alternatively, you can refocus your energy on more productive tasks. “Engaging in creative pursuits, pursuing personal or professional goals, and focusing on activities that bring a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment can shift the focus away from cleaning and towards more meaningful endeavors,” says Rosado.

Limit your overall clutter

Decluttering is a good way to improve your overall mental health. A clean environment can make you feel less anxious, which can help reduce your desire to stress clean.

Rosado advises utilizing the “one in, one out” method. The strategy is simple: for every one thing you bring into your home, one thing must go. So if you buy a new centerpiece, you can get rid of the one gathering dust in storage.

“This practice not only helps maintain a balanced and clutter-free environment, but also serves as a proactive approach to cleaning,” she explains. “By consciously considering what you bring into your space and ensuring it doesn’t lead to excess, you reduce the need for frequent and extensive cleaning sessions.” It’s a win-win!

Shift your mindset

Finally, Rosado recommends implementing the “refocus” strategy, which means you “refocus from perfectionism to productivity.” In other words, adopt a more flexible mentality regarding cleaning and organizing your home.

“Productivity emphasizes effectiveness and efficiency rather than perfection,” she explains. “Instead of fixating on the end results, focus on completing tasks in a timely and satisfactory manner.”

She also recommends changing your mindset to focus on the positives of cleaning. Rather than the actual cleaning task, think about the various mental, emotional, and environmental benefits of cleaning. 

Instead of fixating on the stress you feel today, you can focus on the calm you hope to gain tomorrow.

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: