Cleaning and Anxiety

October 26, 2022 Liana M. Scott

Nobody likes cleaning. Wait. That's not right, because I've known people who enjoy cleaning as it provides a sense of accomplishment or something else I can't comprehend. Not me. I hate cleaning. I especially hate the big jobs. They give me anxiety. Of course, I procrastinate, the job gets bigger, and my anxiety increases. So, I procrastinate some more. And I do it again and again. It is a circle of procrastination and anxiety that eventually must be tackled.

Sometimes Cleaning Can Relieve Anxiety and Stress

I reluctantly do my weekly chores, including laundry, dishes, vacuuming, dusting, sinks, toilets, etc. And sure, if we're expecting guests, extra cleaning is a prerequisite. In this case, we call it "making the fake house," a phrase borrowed from an episode of the '90s sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, implying that the mess we customarily live with is unacceptable for guests. But on the whole, cleaning is the last thing I want to do. 

For some people, cleaning may help relieve anxiety and other types of stress, myself included. For instance, when my dog died, despite my aversion to it, I spent several hours scrubbing the floors and washing baseboards as an outlet for my raw grief. In contrast, the urge to clean and ready my home for our new arrival was overwhelming when I was pregnant. I was on a stool washing windows when I was eight months pregnant with my firstborn. I think it's called nesting. In both cases, however, my need to clean seemed more primal than intentional. I acted on impulse.

Why Do I Get So Anxious About Big Cleaning Jobs?

My husband and I share our household chores. He does the vacuuming, cooking, and shopping; I do the dusting, dishes, and laundry. He cleans his bathroom, and I clean mine. However, my bathroom has a double shower stall which he prefers to his tub shower. The shower stall is extra spacious; I don't begrudge him that. But I have to clean it. Despite using a squeegee on the glass after showers, the hard water in our area builds up, and the glass must eventually be cleaned. Then there are the tiled walls and the stall's floor. It's a big job that I try to do once a month or so. More "or so" than once a month, I'm ashamed to say. 

Naturally, I procrastinate. I spot clean. I soap down the glass to give it a lift. Days go by. Then weeks go by. I know that "big clean" time is approaching. My anxiety escalates with every passing day. It happens a little bit at first. Then it happens more and more. Here is the conversation I had with myself last week about this very task:

"Why does cleaning the shower stall bother you so much?"

"I don't know."

"It's just cleaning. You'll be glad you did it afterwards."

"I know. But it's such a big job."

"It'll take an hour. Maybe a bit more."

"Yah, but then I'll have to do it again in a few weeks."

It was a whirlwind of back-and-forth until I finally sucked it up, got my supplies, and got the job done. And boy, did that shower stall sparkle. I was thankful that neither my husband nor I had to shower until the next day. Every time I went in the bathroom during those few unsullied, pre-shower hours, I stared at the shine and smiled. I'm sure there was a dopamine hit of some sort. I still wouldn't call it fulfillment or satisfaction, but my anxiety about this particular big job was reset, if only for a while.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Cleanliness

My father, who suffers from undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), is hypervigilant about cleanliness. When my siblings and I were young, along with our weekly chores, about which he was mildly tyrannical, he set us about doing some obscure tasks.

I remember one time, Dad made us wash the floors of our cemented crawl space—which was already very orderly because it had to be—pushing everything away from the walls so we could scrub where the floor met the wall. It seemed stupid to us kids, but we did it. We had to do it. We dreaded the next big job he would assign us.

It wasn't just us, though. Mom and Dad took a week of vacation every April to do the spring cleaning. Everything came out of the cupboards, closets, and cabinets to be cleaned, including the cupboards, closets, and cabinets themselves. The house smelled like vinegar for weeks afterward. That was some vacation. 

Keeping things clean and tidy helped reduce Dad's anxiety, but not in the fulfillment/satisfaction kind of way. It relieved his OCD, which eased his anxiety. It didn't eliminate it. Nothing could, undiagnosed as he was. If only we'd known about OCD back then. As kids, we might have better understood what drove my dad to be who he was. As an adult, Dad could have been diagnosed and treated. It was a much different time.

Writing this blog post spotlights the "why" for me. Could my dad's cleaning hypervigilance be why I hate cleaning and get anxious when big jobs are looming? After reading through what I've written, I'd have to say it seems obvious. Understanding why I get anxious about cleaning, the big jobs, in particular, will help me manage the expectations I have of myself, leading to yet another form of self-compassion. This is another topic to discuss with my therapist, I guess.

APA Reference
Scott, L. (2022, October 26). Cleaning and Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from

Author: Liana M. Scott

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October, 26 2022 at 10:29 am

Hmmm 🤔

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