Stressed Out? Then Cleaning Might Be Just What You Need To Chill

Researchers have found a link between cleaning and stress levels, and psychologists agree.

Working back late? Scheduled too many catch-ups this week? Or maybe you have a tendency to accumulate things. Whatever your style, at some point you’ve probably found your bedroom or living spaces so messy that you can’t even think straight.

Most people love a good spring clean, but you might be causing yourself unnecessary stress in the disorderly lead  up to it.

The evidence says that mess makes us stress

Research from the University of California suggests a link between the cleanliness of a home and a person’s stress levels. The study compared the way that a woman described her home with her changing cortisol levels (one of the main stress hormones) during the day. Normally, cortisol levels peak when you wake up and drop throughout the day. For women who described their homes as cluttered or unfinished, however, their cortisol levels remained high.

Sometimes, the actual act of cleaning is therapeutic. Pip, 28, lives in a share house and enjoys the calming effect of cleaning. “As a teacher I spend a lot of my day presenting to others and working collaboratively. The time spent cleaning the house is a good release for me as an introvert because I’m tackling a task solo, I can listen to music or a podcast while I’m cleaning and there’s a sense of achievement at the end.”

With new clothes or an iPhone only an internet click away, it’s easier than it ever has been to accumulate things that we don’t really need. In the western world, there’s a real appetite to simplify, with people like Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying making entire careers in response to this need.

Cleaning is great, but don’t overdo it

Picture this: you’re at a dinner party. You’ve just finished the main course, chatting away and enjoying a few drinks, meanwhile, the host is busily doing the dishes in the kitchen. According to Psychologist Meredith Fuller, this kind of behaviour from the host suggests there might be other issues at play. “They can’t calm down or stay in the moment, they’re not breathing… they don’t know how to self-soothe.”

Your idea of what is “messy” might differ from the next person, but when someone is at the extreme end of wanting to clean all the time it moves into Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) territory. As Consulting Psychologist Andrée Evans explains, “most of us can identify with some traits along the continuum… but where it starts to be unhelpful is if it interferes with a person’s normal functioning.” Washing your hands once or twice might be OK, but if that’s preventing you from getting to work on time or makes you stressed, then there’s a deeper anxiety that needs to be addressed.

Being messy is how I am!

In opposition to the minimalist movement, research from the University of Minnesota suggests that messiness may stimulate creativity. The study found that a tidy room encouraged healthier, more socially responsible decision-making, whereas a messy room helped people to come up with novel and creative ideas.

Fuller, however, doesn’t see this claim as an exact science. “With creative people, often what they’ll do is have a dedicated work-in-progress space that is mess because that’s what the work requires… but the rest of their life doesn’t have to be a mess.” Ultimately, what they need is an environment that allows them to focus on their work.

Do what works for you and the people around you

Sometimes, it’s only once you’ve removed that chest of drawers or sent that pile of books to the op shop that you realise they were making you feel claustrophobic. Keep what you do and don’t need in check by cleaning regularly. At the same time, don’t force it, because that’s extra time in your day spent cleaning and the last thing you need is the pressure of cleaning deadlines to stress you out! Whether it’s a quick tidy every few days or a big cleaning binge every few weeks, you do you – so long as your partner or housemates are OK with it.

If you’re finding your mess or the idea of cleaning overwhelming, there are ways for you to get help. If you’ve got the cash, hiring a cleaner or a professional de-clutterer may suit. Alternatively, get a close friend to help you sort things out. Try using the “keep it, repair it, give it away, or throw it out” system and consolidate away.

Don’t be afraid to seek the advice of a psychologist or counsellor if you’re really struggling. It’s possible your stress could be connected to deeper issues that a professional may be able to help you manage. Head to the Australian Psychological Society website to find a psychologist who might suit you.

Chelsea McIver is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne. Her work appears in titles including VICE, Junkee, Broadsheet and The Big Issue. Tweet her @ChelseaMcIver