This election has been a nightmare for our cortisol levels and a blessing for our households. That is to say that everyone, everyone I know has been stress cleaning. I’ve never used that term outloud before this week, but the fact that people know what it is speaks to its magic powers; even I, a lover of clutter, reorganize my nightstand when my anxiety reaches a tipping point. So it’s clear as day that cleaning relieves stress, but why, and how does that work?
“When so much feels uncontrollable in the world, anxiety and stress tend to dissipate when something as easy and rewarding as cleaning is within our control,” says Dr. Manly. “Given the high levels of stress and anxiety in the air due to the election, cleaning one’s home space can feel both cathartic and rewarding. Anxiety and stress tend to evaporate when simple, rote cleaning actions allow both the body and mind to find a space of easy calm.”
Behind the scenes, this is related to the chemical cocktail that’s poured when you’re washing the dishes. On a neurobiological level, Dr. Manly says cleaning actions both increase feel-good neurochemicals, while decreasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Meanwhile dopamine, the reward hormone, tends to spike when we remember that our cleaning efforts will give us gleaming, palpable results. And those hormones allow us to keep things moving, in time of mental peril by, well, literally, keeping us moving.
“By creating organization in our surroundings, we tend to calm our autonomic nervous systems, using the energy that’s elicited by our stress hormones for physical movement,” says neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD. “Stress hormones are designed to activate us to flight or fight. By moving our bodies and using up energy we are able to burn up some of those stress hormones and create a state of well-being. And in harnessing our attention we can focus on restoring a sense of order that gives us cues that our environments are prepared and we are safe.”
Oh, wow, does that resonate with me. Whenever I throw out pizza boxes, do some laundry, or put away 45 empty water glasses, I do feel like I’m making my home a little haven. Regardless of the cause of my anxiety, giving a little home makeover makes me feel as if I’m safe. From mice, but also other, more nebulous things. And the tenderness and TLC I give my apartment also lights me up, another big-time perk of Stress Cleaning.
“Our homes are often our safest and most sacred space,” says Dr. Manly. “When the outside world seems overwhelming, home is often that singular place we can turn to for serenity and peace. Our home spaces offer us the added benefit of having the opportunity to care for—and be cared for by—our chosen surroundings.”
Essentially, adopting a productive and purposeful activity like Stress Cleaning allows us clear the cobwebs of our mind, connect to our positive emotions, and create a world where nobody can touch us. So the next time you feel the urge to grab your phone and doomscroll into the abyss, maybe reach for a duster instead.
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