Can spring cleaning improve your mental health?

Unless this weekend’s weather is just too beautiful to resist, Sherry Roher is going to…

Can spring cleaning improve your mental health?

Unless this weekend’s weather is just too beautiful to resist, Sherry Roher is going to spend at least one day giving her apartment a deep clean.

“I start by turning up the music and tidying up clutter,” said Roher, a housing co-operative administrator in Toronto. “Then I dust all the surfaces, vacuum every room and wash the floors, stopping on occasion for water and dance breaks. If I’m tired, I might just spot-clean the floors. Sometimes, though, I wind up on the ground wiping down the trim on all the baseboards. Then I scrub the tub, toilet and sink.

“Then I make myself a gin-and-tonic and sit on the couch with a clean, clear head.”

Spring cleaning? Nope. That’s a normal weekend clean for Roher. For her, cleaning is a weekly ritual that’s largely about self-care.

“Too much clutter feels like an indication of how I am inside,” Roher explained. “Cleaning helps me to feel clear.”

To kick off spring-cleaning season, we asked the experts if the act of cleaning up has any benefits, aside from the obvious ones: a clean home and the opportunity to revel in an orgiastic dance party followed by a nice mixed drink.

“If your environment feels out of control, it’s easy for you to feel out of control,” said Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist in the work, stress and health program of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “It’s really important that we pay attention to the things creating that chaos.”

Clutter can negatively impact our focus and spike stress levels. It’s similar to the way that being in a noisy environment — with its constant barrage of stimuli competing for our attention — can tire our brains and leave us vulnerable to anxiety. A “noisy” room can also make us tired.

“What we see around us in our space and our experience of emotions in our body are tightly connected right at the level of our nervous system,” said Carly Fleming, a registered psychotherapist and owner of Everwell Counselling. “When we’re surrounded by a lot of disorder and chaos, our bodies tell us that we can’t relax because there’s something that needs to be attended to. That can create anxiety or a sense of lack of safety.”

That’s the same logic that underlines one of the cardinal rules of sleep hygiene, namely that bedrooms should be minimalist spaces, devoted to sleep and sex — and nothing else.

“Sleep is important, obviously, but so is the ability to be at rest and relax in other rooms of the house,” said Fleming.

It’s also comparatively easier to, say, clean out a closet than, it is to tackle a tricky workplace dynamic or come up with a five-year-plan to finally pay off your debt.

That’s one of the main reasons Toronto account manager Brit Maguire loves short cleaning tasks that give her a “moment of satisfaction.”

“I suffer from daily anxiety and, like most people, sometimes find my job stressful, so cleaning is like a little respite,” said Maguire. “If I have dishes in the sink, I can go do them and remove myself from work for a minute. I find there’s something very relaxing about the process.”

The bigger the clean, the better the break for Maguire. “The idea of a spring deep clean overjoys me. Once you start to open the windows and let the sunshine in, it’s like you’re seeing those dark corners with fresh eyes.”

For people like Roher and Maguire, spring cleaning can feel like the first day of the new year — only considerably better, since the sun doesn’t go down in the middle of the afternoon.

“It’s like a new beginning,” said Ferguson. “People feel a bit more energized and like they can accomplish more. You can take advantage of that momentum and try to clear away all your winter stuff, and start fresh with spring and a clean house.”

Both Ferguson and Fleming warn, though, that moderation is key. Don’t try to tackle the whole house in a day and then feel badly about yourself when it doesn’t happen.

“There are people who just can’t tolerate disorder or rest if something is out of order,” said Fleming. “Given all the uncertainty in the world, being able to tolerate some uncertainty is a big piece that people can work on for better mental health.”

So, for your own good, once in a while, practise letting the baseboards accumulate a layer of dust and go outside. A little seasonal cleaning clears the cobwebs and quells the anxious brain, but so does a long walk on one of the first beautiful days of the season. There will be plenty of rainy days on which to revel in a dance party for one.

Spring is fleeting. The closet will still be there tomorrow.


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