Investigating the Link between Cleaning and Mental Health

Cleaning is considered to be a form of stress relief, among other activities such as mindfulness and exercise practices. Research has demonstrated that cleaning can yield several positive effects on mental health. Among them, a sense of control and a calming effect caused by the engagement of cognitive capacity in a repetitive activity is the most notable.

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The Link Between Cleaning, Physical Health, and Mood

Researchers from Indiana University have examined the relationship between physical health activity and the atmosphere in the home. 998 African American participants between the age of 49 and 65, living in Saint Louis were included in the African American health longitudinal study, which commenced in 2000. This group was specifically targeted in the study as they are disproportionately affected by risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It is known that physical activity is likely to reduce this as well as the effect of the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The study used self-assessment and objective assessments to gauge the participants' perception of their neighborhoods and residences. Participants were asked to rate the interior and exterior aspects of the home including cleanliness, among other factors including noise, air quality, furnishings, and conditions of these interior and exterior aspects.

The data demonstrated that the interior condition of the home was an instrumental factor affecting the physical health of the study subjects. That is, those with cleaner houses reported greater levels of health compared to those with more cluttered homes, which was similarly correlated with physical activity; those with positively rated internal and external environmental factors were more likely to be physically active.

The Link Between Cleaning and Environmental Control

Environmental uncertainty and uncontrollability are sources of stress in humans, which prevents normal functioning. Response to this form of uncertainty is ritualization, which involves limiting expressions and activities in repetitive motor patterns.

These reactions are thought to be mediated by different neural pathways, and in their extremes unknown to manifest as obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism spectrum disorder, however, repetitive, redundant (serving no purpose/fulfillment of a goal), and rigid (inflexible) activities, known to help people regain control.

In an examination of ritualized behavior in anxiogenic situations (that causing anxiety), researchers studied 62 undergraduate students cleaning behaviors assigned to either a high-anxiety or low-anxiety group. The researchers found that induced anxiety increased the likelihood of repetitive and rigid activities. Notably, however, these activities were not redundant. This study emphasized a novel link between anxiety and ritualized behavior, such as cleaning.

The Link Between Cleaning and Mood Enhancement

In a study published in the journal, Mindfulness, researchers investigated whether washing dishes could be used as a contemplative practice, as a means to promote mindfulness in an attendant emotional context.

The study used a sample of 51 university students engaged in either mindful or controlled dishwashing practices; these participants were asked to complete measures of mindfulness, experimental, and effect recall. The outcome suggested that mindful dishwashers experienced the greatest states of mindfulness, with a subsequent increase in positive effects (i.e. feeling inspired) as well as a decrease in negative effects such as nervousness.

The researchers noted that these implications are diverse and suggest that mindfulness can be cultivated via cleaning, and more widely in intentionally engaging activities.

Cleaning

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The Link Between Cleaning and Focus

According to research, multiple stimuli result in a limited cognitive processing capacity because of overstimulation of the visual system. This limited processing capacity is a result of competitive interactions which can be controlled by the biased bottom-up process is and top-down processes.

The bottom-up process is based on retrieving sensory information from the environment and producing perceptions based on this, in real-time. In top-down processing, previous experiences, expectations, and knowledge, are used to produce a perception.

Bottom-up processes are the driver of top-down processes.  When spaces are cleared the degree of bottom-up, stimulus-driven mechanisms are reduced, resulting in an increased ability to focus using top-down processes. Therefore, cleaning can indirectly affect mental health through a reduced pressure to multi-task.

Cleaning results in good mental health through several mechanisms. The absence of clutter can reduce the overstimulation produced by too many visual stimuli, enabling increased focus and the ability to concentrate. In addition, cleaning can enhance mood, particularly when engaged in mindful activity whilst doing the cleaning activity – moreover, the active cleaning itself can result in environmental certainty and controllability, thereby reducing anxiety.

References:

  • Saxbe DE, Repetti R. (2010) No place like home: home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. doi:10.1177/0146167209352864.
  • McMains S, Kastner S. (2011) Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex. J Neurosci. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-10.2011.
  • Saxbe DE, Repetti R. (2010) No place like home: home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. doi:10.1177/0146167209352864.
  • Lang M, Krátký J, Shaver JH, Jerotijević D, et al. (2015) Effects of anxiety on spontaneous ritualized behavior. Curr Biol. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.049.
  • Hanley AW, Warner AR, Dehili VM, et al. (2015)Washing dishes to wash the dishes: brief instruction in an informal mindfulness practice. Mindfulness. doi:10.1007/s12671-014-0360-9.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jan 18, 2022

Hidaya Aliouche

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Hidaya Aliouche

Hidaya is a science communications enthusiast who has recently graduated and is embarking on a career in the science and medical copywriting. She has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from The University of Manchester. She is passionate about writing and is particularly interested in microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry.

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