How to tidy your mind with a tidy home – why cleaning is great for stress and anxiety

You don't have to be Monica from Friends to know that cleaning can be an essential part of your self-care routine. Here are three ways a good clean can reduce stress and increase calm.

Updated

sunflower vase and wooden chopping board over white kitchen countertop

More and more studies are telling us what we already know: a clean home can make you happier. When we think about self-care, we often think of things like bubble baths or sinking into the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and a good book (or is that just us?). But just how relaxing would it be to sit on that same couch and be surrounded by mess and chaos? No doubt it would be enough to put anyone off their cocoa.

On the other hand, few things are more satisfying than a clean, tidy home. Having a space that is well organised, uncluttered, calm and restorative can do wonders for your mental health. Here’s how…

How cleaning can help with anxiety

There is a very clear link between a clean house and your mental health. One 2010 study, published in the scientific journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, analysed how people described their home. Individuals who used words like “cluttered” or “full of unfinished projects” were more likely to be depressed and fatigued than those who described their homes as “restful” and “restorative.” The researchers also found that people with cluttered homes expressed higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

We all know that returning home from a busy, frazzled day and entering a calm, tidy space can instantly bring down stress levels, but the act of cleaning itself can also help. A Scottish Health Survey showed that regular housework helps bring down anxiety and reduce stress, while really vigorous cleaning (like washing the windows or floors) gives you a bit of a workout, boosting endorphins and acting as an outlet for negative emotions.

Cleaning can be a mindful practice

It might sound like a stretch but cleaning can be a great way of practising mindfulness. According to Leo Babauta, the man behind the hugely popular Zen Habits blog, cleaning offers easy opportunities to test out some core mindfulness principles.

Consider something simple, like wiping down the kitchen counter: it’s an opportunity to tune in, notice and try to let go of all those thoughts that prevent us from being in the present. We can use it as an opportunity to let go of judgment (“Ugh, the kitchen is so dirty”), remove expectations (“Why can’t people clean up after themselves?”), stop dwelling on the past (“We really should have emptied the dishwasher last night”) or racing to the future (“I need to clean out the fridge this weekend”).

Instead, we can try to be truly present: feel the damp cloth, notice the crumbs, admire the smooth, clean counter surface. “Wiping things down, mindfully, is just as full of wonder as any other moment in my life,” says Leo.

female hand with blue cloth and spray cleaning the kitchen countertop

Tidy house, tidy mind: how clutter affects your brain

A 2011 Princeton study found that visual clutter can actually interfere with your ability to concentrate and be productive. On a subconscious level, clutter is likely to be linked with negative emotions like tension, confusion and irritability while a clean space is much more likely to bring about positive feelings like calm, happiness and a general sense of wellbeing.

Similarly, lots of research has shown that messy bedrooms can make it more difficult to have a restful night’s sleep. If clutter is a problem in your home, the bedroom is one of the best places to start. You’re looking to create a space that sends signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep, so remove any work paraphernalia, laundry baskets filled with clothes that need sorting, or any other items that suggest you should be “doing” something. Try to make your bed every morning, so that’s it’s a clean, clear, inviting space to come into in the evening (you can explore more tips on creating a restful bedroom space here).

The very thought of a marathon decluttering session can be stressful, but most experts agree that little and often is the way to go: taking just 10 minutes every day is enough to start bringing down anxiety. Sorting just one area out – no matter how small – is not only a step in the right direction, but it will give you just enough motivation to build momentum and keep going.

Not sure where to start? Here are five things to declutter right now.

Originally published