How Cleaning and Organizing Can Benefit Your Mind and Body
There's nothing quite like coming home (or maybe just closing your laptop) after a long day of work and…cleaning.
Yes, you read that right.
While some people may exercise to destress or turn to meditation when feeling overwhelmed, I channel my inner Monica Geller and get to work dusting, discarding, disinfecting, and reorganizing my apartment. But I don't need to be in a mental funk to start reorganizing my kitchen drawers with enthusiasm. I've actually been very into cleaning and organizing since an embarrassingly young age. Only now as an adult, however, have I realized that it's actually my favorite form of self-care.
While that may seem surprising to some, it actually makes a lot of sense according to mental health pros. Just take it from Clea Shearer, co-founder of The Home Edit who says, "I don't think that many people understand that organizing is really a form of self-care, and it does so much for your mind and your whole body." Plus, research backs this up. Ahead, all of the science and expert insight you need to feel good about taking the time to clean and declutter your home (and your mind).
Mental and Physical Benefits of Cleaning and Organizing
For starters, surrounding yourself with clutter and mess can wreak havoc on your health. A 2010 study found that women who described their living spaces as disorganized tended to have generally higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Meanwhile, those who characterized their homes as being restful and restorative were not only less stressed than their cluttered counterparts but also reported less sad feelings as the day went on, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What's more, "having a messy or cluttered environment can leave your brain feeling that your overall life is messy or disorganized, which can increase your feelings of depression and/or anxiety," says Neha Khorana, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. "It can [also] leave you feeling overwhelmed, especially if other things in your life are already stressful or you're struggling with issues that you have minimal control over."
If disorganization and messiness can make you feel anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, or even depressed, then it goes to reason that minimizing those triggers by way of organizing can help ease the symptoms of these emotions.
Allows You to Gain a Sense of Control
"When you clean [and organize], you're actively working toward changing the outcome (in this case, changing a cluttered space to a cleaner space)," says Neha Mistry, Psy.D., a Texas-based licensed clinical psychologist. "This act can simply provide a sense of control."
ICYDK, feelings of anxiety — whether situational (think: due to an impending work presentation) or chronic (e.g. generalized anxiety disorder, GAD) — often stem from a lack of control. And while you might not always be able to have or regain control over certain stressful situations in your life, being able to take matters into your own hands in some way can help you alleviate overall anxiety. This can be something as simple as paring down your skin-care products or rearranging your bookshelf to be more aesthetically pleasing.
"Often, when struggling with feelings of anxiety, it can be helpful to engage in repetitive behaviors, such as cleaning," says Khorana. "These actions are often predictable and allow you to have a sense of control and agency over your environment, which help to mitigate feelings of anxiety. Feeling in control of our environment can help you to feel more grounded and empowered."
Boosts Your Mood
Simply seeing clothes strewn across your floor can cause your cortisol (stress hormone) levels to skyrocket. On top of that, a cluttered environment might lead you to add even more items to check off on your to-do list (e.g. fold your clothes), which already feels impossible to accomplish. The result? A more overwhelmed and potentially dispirited mental state. But taking the time to rearrange or organize something can do wonders for your mood — and save you from experiencing another wave of anxiety from the chaos in the future.
"Cleaning and organizing are also mindfulness exercises," adds Mistry. These activities force you to focus on the present, clearing your mind of any thoughts other than the task at hand. This, in turn, can help you avoid thinking about other responsibilities or appointments, ultimately improving your mood and decreasing your stress levels, explains Mistry. "The benefits to mindfulness [also] include improved sleep," which can also better your emotional and mental well-being, in general. (Related: How to Sleep Better When Stress Is Ruining Your Zzz's)
Research suggests that seeing multiple stimuli at once that are not related to the task at hand — aka random clutter everywhere — can make it especially hard to focus and work efficiently. Think of it this way: Working from home can be a difficult task in and of itself, but if you've ever tried doing so with a collection of cups, sticky notes, and snack wrappers from yesterday, you understand how difficult it is to make a dent in your daily tasks.
"Clutter can make it difficult to focus and concentrate, as the visual reminder of misplaced items can contribute to irritability and stress," says Mistry. And if you're already feeling a bit bogged down by sadness or stress, a messy surrounding might very well lead to a worsened mental state and, in turn, impact your efficiency.
Conjuring a little bit of Cinderella-esque cleaning prowess to limit the crap covering your desk and re-establish it as the place you do work can help. Not only will this allow you to develop an association with a place and its purpose (e.g. bed for sleep, desk for work) but it also helps your brain partake in "selective attention, which refers to the process of focusing on one stimulus [even] when there are multiple other stimuli present," explains Mistry. "This creates increased effort to focus on that one task when there are multiple pending tasks at hand. Tidying up can help bypass that competition for attention." (See also: How to Stay Focused When You're Stressed and Overwhelmed)
Amps Up Your Heart Rate
Sure, tidying up might not be as intense as that Peloton ride you powered through earlier or as obvious as your weekend run, but "engaging in some vigorous cleaning (e.g. mopping, dusting, sweeping) can help to increase our heart rate and maybe even break a sweat," says Khorana. "[And that] would give you that hit of endorphins!" Now, if you've been dealing with a particularly bad bout of depression or have GAD, your mental health troubles won't just disappear along with the dust. But, vacuuming the carpets could trigger the release of the same feel-good chemical that's been shown to help ease anxiety and depression at the moment and, when done regularly, long-term, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And need not forget about the physical benefits of low-impact cardio (a stronger heart and lungs, to start). On top of that, an Indiana University study found that folks with clean homes tend to be healthier than those with messy spaces. Although it's not clear whether these results suggest that something about the condition of a residence directly drives physical activity or that people are being physically active while tidying, they're notable nonetheless.
How to Reap the Health Benefits of Cleaning and Organizing
When it comes to cleaning your home, few people are better equipped to teach you how it's done than Shearer and her co-founder of The Home Edit, Joanna Teplin. After all, the duo has not only built a successful organization business, but they've also garnered national attention with their knack for making tidying up manageable and somehow fun. And it doesn't hurt that they tend to organize everything in a rainbow of colors, making a once-menial household task a creative activity.
If you're a novice organizer, the good news is that you don't have to start with a big, complicated project, says Teplin. The key when it comes to cleaning and organizing is to start small, even if that's just spending some time culling through your collection of novelty mugs and deciding which to donate and which to keep. "But if you start something too big, halfway through [the project] you are going to lose your stamina," explains Shearer. "You're going to get cloudy, it's going to be too complicated, and then you're just going to kind of throw it all back in."
When cleaning up an area, there's always the possibility of putting items, such as your fitness equipment, away in a closet, only to forget about them — and then maybe even your workout entirely. After all, without the visual reminder, it's easy to get sidetracked. Instead, consider corralling your weights and bands so that they're not a tripping hazard while still remaining in plain sight. One way to accomplish this is with a multi-tiered rolling cart that can house your towels, dumbbells, resistance bands, and other go-to gym supplies. This is both a functional solution and an aesthetically pleasing option, says Shearer.
And a cart is just one way to mix form and function. Another good option is clear storage containers because they allow you to see what's inside, ensuring "you're more likely to gravitate toward it and access it," she explains. "Even in the fridge, stackable clear storage is just a great way to already have pre-cut veggies, fruit on hand, those quick, easy grab-and-go snacks. People make healthier choices if it's at the ready."
Clear storage containers can also be a great way to contain your workout gear, such as your leggings (as shown above). Not only do they offer neat, aesthetically-pleasing organization but they also allow you to visibly see your items, thereby upping your chances of squeezing in that workout.
There's no "end" in "edit." The process of taking inventory of all of your stuff should be ongoing — "it's not one and done," says Teplin.
For those who aren't habitual cleaners or are new to the decluttering game, the idea of a never-ending need to organize might seem daunting. Scheduling a monthly cleaning session and putting it in your calendar can help you remember to regularly declutter and hold you to it.
"Editing out your items is such a relief [and] it feels good," says Shearer. "It's really powerful to purge your items, and know that every single thing in your home, your apartment, is something you need, use, or love." The result? Less stress and mental clutter going forward.