Your Sudden Urge to Clean House Is Telling You Something

Woman spraying cleaning product in the air, obscuring her face.
Photo: Susumu Yoshioka/Getty Images

Have you found yourself overtaken by a sudden urge to clean and reorganize every inch of your living space?

If the fresh-start feeling of the election results has you newly energized to change up your space, you’re not alone. At least according to Twitter, that mood is in the air.

If you’re stress-cleaning, you’re not alone there, either: Studies have linked “ritualized behaviors” like meticulous cleaning to periods of heightened anxiety. And, well, there’s been a fair bit of that going around lately.

And then there’s the chill in the air coinciding with the second wave of a nearly yearlong pandemic. Many of us crave security and comfort as we begin to spend more time indoors.

Whichever driving force speaks to your current state, now is the perfect time to get your house in order. Your surroundings can have concrete effects on your mental health. Research shows that poor housing quality, a lack of green space, and noise and air pollution are associated with a depressive mood — some of the perhaps less-considered, compounding mental health risks for people living in poverty. There’s also a correlation between clutter and stress, which can exacerbate a lack of focus and even difficulty sleeping. You’ve probably felt, for yourself, how a bright, neat space promotes a sense of calm while mess often induces anxiety.

So, where to begin?

Assess the stuff taking up your space

Reassess your environment, on a macro level, by looking at the objects within it. “The items we surround ourselves with carry weight,” says Anjie Cho, a New York City-based architect and feng shui practitioner. That doesn’t mean physical weight. Objects, Cho explains, are sometimes imbued with memory and purpose — a gift from an ex, or a 1,000-piece puzzle that you bought with the best intentions in March — that may no longer serve you or may be affecting your mental wellness in harmful ways.

This may have a strong whiff of Marie Kondo-ing one’s space or eliminating items and objects that don’t “spark joy.” But for all its zeitgeistiness, there’s a clear usefulness in the KonMari method. Cho calls it “making space” — removing items from your home that might be cluttering your mind, in addition to your living quarters. A book that you’ve had for years and meant to read, for instance, and which is preventing you from buying other books until you do read it — get rid of that book. Ditch stuff with associations that cause you stress or anxiety if you’re able. Be aware of what you bring into your home and therefore into your mind — whatever takes up physical space also takes up mental real estate.

Additionally, consider how you physically interact with your space. There might be a door that has always stuck or a table that you always bump your knee against. Those things might not have bothered you pre-pandemic, when time in your home was limited. But “if you face a spatial challenge every day, your body and mind need to compensate for it,” Cho says. “And so, there’s parts of your brain that have to expend energy on that problem.”

The same principle applies to keeping things tidy and mess-free. Try picking up after yourself when you leave a room to eliminate a build-up of mess that may become distracting and, eventually, oppressive.

Be mindful of your space (and time)

Once you’re done with the small stuff, take a look at your floor plan: Where do you eat, where do you work, where do you sleep? If any of these things cross over more often than, say, a couple times a week, investigate ways in which you can more meaningfully separate them. “Create a boundary between when it’s time to finish work and when it’s time for leisure,” says Daisy Surjo Vergara, a psychotherapist based in Seattle.

This can mean creating an actual, physical boundary — setting up a home office, for instance — or, if that’s not possible due to space limitations, relegating certain activities to certain times of day, or devices to certain rooms. (Vergara suggests no cellphones in the bedroom).

Small, spatial changes to your home might have a big impact, but there’s more to maintaining emotional wellness at home than keeping things tidy and using space effectively. You should also pay attention to when you’re inhabiting different spaces within your home. Ray Quinoñes, a life coach based in Yonkers, New York, says the first step to mindfulness when you’re confined to your home is, well, literally the first step: get out of bed, preferably at the same time every day.

“At the root of anxiety is often a feeling of lacking control,” says Quinoñes. “And, with this pandemic, the feeling of having no control is amplified for most people. So, what can you control? You can control what time you wake up, and what time you go to bed.”

Quinoñes emphasizes that establishing a routine, whether it’s as granular as scheduling each hour of the day or simply committing to a daily weekday breakfast at 8 a.m. (at the kitchen table), can help alleviate anxieties that may stem from feeling helpless over the pandemic, specifically because they shift focus onto more actionable, personal habits. Make sure you schedule time for wellness, whether that be a YouTube yoga class or a walk around the block.

Finally, make sure your downtime is actually downtime. Vergara cites “screen fatigue” as one of the most significant — and insidious — sources of stress for her patients as well as herself.

“Don’t get up from your desk, go to your couch, and pull up your phone,” Vergara says. “Put the phone down and prepare a meal, talk to someone in your household, or leave the phone at your desk and go outside. Even just for an hour.” After all, home is where your habits live, too.

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