A Therapist Explains Why Stress Cleaning Is So Satisfying

by Natalie Kiser

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The allure of a smooth surface, slightly glimmering. The fresh citrus scent lingering in the air. Yes, I’m talking about my clean countertops. When I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I turn to cleaning. I start by scrubbing my countertops, then sweeping my floors, and even tackling the gunk on my stove. Sometimes, I work through my process with the faint sound of Gilmore Girls re-runs playing in the background. Other times, it’s just me and my thoughts.

To me, there’s something particularly calming about cleaning. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. But why, exactly, does cleaning soothe stress? I asked an expert.

How cleaning helps anxious thoughts

When we clean, we complete a repetitive task over and over again, says Monica Denais, a Texas-based therapist A repetitive task requires less active thinking—and allows us to accomplish something when other things seem out of our control.

There’s another aspect to anxious cleaning—the ability to visibly see our work. When life feels out of control and chaotic (like during a global pandemic), cleaning is a task in which we clearly see the results. “We tend to lean into cleaning because we’re able to see a final outcome,” she says. “At the end, once we’re done cleaning, we get to light up that candle, and it’s…in a nice, clean space and that could really represent peace for us.”

This type of cleaning can also serve as a mindfulness practice. Taking the time to do something slowly, especially for those with high-functioning anxiety, can be helpful, Denais says. However, if you’re struggling to stay present (and decrease your anxious thoughts) while cleaning, she recommends category cleaning. Instead of thinking about tackling one giant mess, select one item or room to focus on. Pick up all of the water glasses and bottles around your house or opt to clean up your bedroom. You’ll still feel a level of satisfaction and pride—even if some other areas remain messy.

Does watching other people clean have the same effect?

If you’ve spent time on TikTok recently, you may be consumed by #CleanTok. This side of TikTok is comprised of time-lapses of people cleaning a particular area of their house, almost serving as a form of ASMR for viewers. Personally, the minutes, er hours, spent scrolling through these videos often give me the same level of soothing satisfaction as cleaning my own space does. “We actually still get that dopamine feeling as if we did the cleaning, but we didn’t,” Denais says. “That’s why people are so obsessed with clean TikToks because it still releases that same chemical that makes us feel good.”

So, when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, but don’t necessarily feel like tackling your own messes, spend a few minutes scrolling on #CleanTok. You may feel calmer after just a few scrolls.