When 29-year-old Mica Binkley of Memphis, Tennessee, spotted a TikTok video last March showing a young boy cooking in the family kitchen, she was struck not by the young chef’s skills but by the harsh comments posted by platform users who criticized the messy space behind him.

To Binkley, the scene resembled her own living space a few years earlier when she was depressed and lacked the motivation to clean or organize her belongings. Recognizing signs of depression, Binkley leaped into action via social media offering her help to clean and organize (for free!) the homes of local women struggling with depression. Binkley’s tweet earned likes and retweets galore, inspiring others to roll up their sleeves and follow her generous, compassionate example.1

Experts say a disorganized and messy house can cause stress, anxiety, and depression but what if you’re not motivated to tidy up?  Psycom talked to people who successfully use cleaning to reduce their anxiety, calm their worries, and work in a little exercise, too. Their approach, along with some researched-based reasons, just might convince you of the mental health benefits you can reap from cleaning.

De-Clutter Your Space, De-Clutter Your Mind

Research shows that cleaning—or lack of it—is linked to mental health. Stuff piled everywhere. Unwanted clothes jammed into disorganized closets, and sinks filled with dirty dishes can signal mental distress. On the other hand, household chores can be a productive form of distraction—a way to take the mind off of more pressing concerns and stop worrying (temporarily) about problems you can’t control.

New Jersey mom Amy W. (*Names abbreviated to protect privacy) turned to good, old-fashioned ironing after being diagnosed with breast cancer on the heels of a few other health-related crises in her family.

“I ironed sheets, shirts, napkins, dresses, you name it,” says Amy who now considers starch her best friend. “The feeling of accomplishing something and having full control even for that moment was very satisfying. I’ve never ironed before. The rocking motion was somehow very soothing.”

Joanne M., a recently-retired communications professional, also picked up an iron when her life felt bleak. “I specifically remember the weekend before my father died. My brother was with him, so I used my time off [from caregiving] to do every last bit of ironing. I think this task, which was simple and completable, gave me a feeling of control over the situation, which was otherwise chaotic.”

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Research conducted by Darbe Saxbe, PhD, showed that clutter has a profound effect on mood and self-esteem.2

In the study of 60 families, investigators found that women who viewed their homes as disorganized and messy had increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The women also felt more depressed throughout the day and more tired at night, compared with women in the experiment who described their home environment as restful.

Research has also shown that clutter can wreck your concentration.

A 2011 study from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute compared the impact of living in cluttered vs organized spaces and found that too many visual stimuli (think: shoes on the staircase, a sink full of dishes, wrinkled clothes in the dryer) makes it hard for the brain to focus and process information. That overload can be stressful for some people.

In the report, researchers put it this way, “Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.”

Translation: To be less on edge and more productive you may need to clear the clutter at home and at work.

Joanne explains the contentment she felt in the aftermath of preparing for the arrival of out-of-town guests. “There was a moment when all the tasks were finished: the house was immaculate, the laundry all done, food shopping and prep, also complete,” she says. “It was then that I was able to stretch out on a lounge chair on my deck, relax for a moment and revel in the satisfaction that my hard-earned order, however temporary, was bringing me.”

Finding Calm Through Cleaning

Clutter makes it difficult to relax and leads to feelings of guilt and embarrassment for many people. Plus, if you can’t find what you need clutter is a time-waster, too. If you are working from home like so many people in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, you may be feeling the effects of your cluttered surroundings even more. It might help to consider some of the other benefits of cleaning—apart from ridding your house of the dust bunnies (and other nasty allergens) under your bed.

“Move a muscle, change a thought,” says Lauren, a mom who struggles with anxiety and depression. When Lauren feels overwhelmed she relies on movement to recharge her energy and reset her thinking. Her go-to’s are taking the dog for an extended walk or working outside in the garden. Gregory Scott Brown, MD, a psychiatrist, and wellness advocate based in Austin, Texas explains the physiological connection.

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“Moving your body is a great stress reliever,” says Gregory Scott Brown, MD,  “People who engage in more physical activity are at a reduced risk for developing depression, regardless of age or geographic region,” he says.

“When people hear exercise they think we’re talking about going to the gym or running marathons. But moving around your house while you’re cleaning or getting up to go to the mailbox, that’s good for your body as well,” he adds.

Cleanliness and Mental Health

Washing dishes, mopping floors, and yes ironing can be calming—especially when conducted in a mindful way.

A 2015 study conducted by student and faculty researchers at Florida State University found that mindful student dishwashers—study subjects who focused on the smell of the soap, the warmth of the water, and the feel of the dishes experienced a 27% decrease in nervousness and a 25% hike in mental inspiration, while the control group received no benefits.3

“I do think there are benefits like stress reduction and gaining a sense of control that cleaning up your space can offer,” says Dr. Brown. “Oftentimes a sense of purpose, having something tangible that you can look at and say, this is something I’ve achieved today. That can be very rewarding for people who are struggling. Taking on a big, eight-hour project isn’t necessary. There are small things you can do every single day.”

Josh B. is a young, married Navy pilot who alleviates stress by keeping his tiny, 700 square-foot Southern California apartment tidy. He prefers organizing to cleaning and likes his home to function like a “well-oiled machine.” Cleaning is important, he adds, but he doesn’t derive the same mental health boost from cleaning that he gets from having a well-thought-out and orderly space.

“Papers need to be in a neat stack,” he continues. “The bed must be made. Countertops should be clean, the shower curtain closed, and everything must have a place. I cringe at “junk drawers” and cannot stand dishes in the sink for longer than a day. I am at my most peaceful place when the dishwasher was just unloaded, with no dishes in the sink, the bed is made, and all items are put away.”

How to Start Cleaning When You Don’t Want to

If you’re overwhelmed, it’s okay. Clutter causes stress but it helps to remember that stress from clutter is something that can be fixed. Here are a few simple changes you can make right now.

  • Make Your Bed

    A study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who make their beds every morning are 19% more likely to say they regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Clean sheets are also linked to better rest. Seventy-five percent of people report they are more comfortable when they sleep in bedding that has been washed recently.

  • Start Small

    It’s not necessary to devote an entire weekend to cleaning. That’s no one’s idea of a fun way to spend downtime. Set your sights on something easy, like a drawer or the coat closet. Commit to sorting it on a weeknight after dinner. Reward yourself with a piece of dark chocolate or by watching a show that makes you laugh.

  • Use A Timer to Get You Motivated

    If you are easily distracted by tasks that bore or overwhelm you set a timer for 20 minutes and tackle a cleaning task. Load your dishwasher and scrub your sink. Clean two toilets or vacuum and dust your living room. Vow to work on a different task for the same amount of time (more or less depending on your motivation) the next day. This approach will slowly build a sense of accomplishment and pretty soon you’ll be making dinner in a clean kitchen.

  • De-clutter Your Workspace Before Quitting for The Day

    Straighten out your paper piles and discard anything you’re finished with before you shut down your computer for the night. Some people use lists to ease their anxiety. If you’re nervous that you’ll forget where you left off, making a list of where to get started in the morning. Taking a few minutes to tidy your desk provides a sense of closure not to mention the energy you’ll feel in the morning when you start your workday in a more organized space.

  • Listen to A Podcast or Music You Love

    You may as well make the job fun and cleaning in the company of energizing tunes or an inspiring podcast can really help to make the task more enjoyable.

Cleaning and organizing—even in small doses—goes a long way to helping us feel better about ourselves physically and mentally. That’s the power of cleaning.

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Last Updated: Oct 14, 2021