My brother and I experienced our mother’s militant cleaning rituals — think “spring cleaning” but a thousand times more intense and scheduled every single weekend — as a culturally acceptable form of child torture in our youths. Throughout the week, we had to Windex (always a verb in our family) our sinks each time we used them because my mom couldn’t tolerate water stains. We weren’t allowed to sit on our bedspreads because she didn’t want them ruffled or soiled. And anytime a friend was brave enough to come over, she’d bark at their arrival: “Don’t touch the walls!”
When I detail my mom’s epic cleaning rituals to U.K.’s Queen of Clean, Lynsey Crombie, she exclaims: “She sounds just like me!” My first thought is: Wait, there are others?! And apparently, there are thousands, maybe even millions. Crombie, whose book, How to Clean Your House comes out next March in the U.S., has amassed over 95 thousand followers on Instagram with images of her immaculate home and favorite cleaning products, as well as Insta Stories about how she effectively scrubs and orders her habitat.
Cleaning influencers, as they’re called, continue to ratchet up a mind-boggling number of followers online: There’s another U.K. dirt-busting sensation, Sophie Hinchcliffe, who boasts 1.4 millions followers, and Canadian Melissa Maker’s CleanMySpace, which enchants 64.3 thousand aseptic enthusiasts and showcases Maker sterilizing bathroom faucets and washing her ultra-white walls.
While Maker admits she dislikes the act of cleaning, Hinchliffe and Crombie represent a new iteration of housecleaner — they don’t just enjoy the pristine results, they believe the process itself has healing powers: “I honestly believe that cleaning helped me get through bad things in my life. It gave me focus and a challenge for the day,” Crombie says. “If you’ve got no clutter, you feel so much better about yourself and your surroundings.”
Hinchcliffe told EssexLive, a U.K. media outlet in the town where she resides, that the practice once thought of as drudgery actually quells her anxiety: “I’m a worrier and I struggle with anxiety,” she said, adding, “For me, to keep my mind off of what was worrying me would be to clean and organize something and love the end result.”
She also revealed that since she launched her account in March of 2018, fellow cleaning enthusiasts, who call themselves “Hinch’s Army,” have confessed that she’s helped them battle their own mental health struggles. When Thrive asked our contributor community to share what helps them relax when they’re stressed, the cleaning evangelists emerged en masse. One gushed effusively about her love of scrubbing her bathroom, adding, “If I can get down on my hands and knees, it’s even better. This activity forces me to clear my head and quite literally focus on the task at hand.”
What is going on? How did what used to be seen as drudgery become the trendiest way to manage anxiety?
Cleanliness and organization as a path toward calm seems to have hit a high note somewhere around 2014 with the publication of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which sold millions of copies, galvanizing the masses to declutter their homes. It also spurred a mini industry of like-minded books and innumerable columns trumpeting the soothing powers of housekeeping. Even Netflix has gotten in on the action by giving Kondo her own show, the just-launched Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, where the cleaning guru herself helps people find their way out of “emotional messes” by helping them get their homes in order.
While studies do bear out the mood-boosting rewards of eschewing clutter and uncleanliness, our mania for cleaning seems to express something unique about our cultural and historical moment.
Anxiety, which stems from our inability to cope with uncertainty and discomfort, is at an all-time high, psychologist Reid Wilson, Ph.D., author of Stopping the Noise In Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, tells Thrive. Earlier last year the American Psychiatric Association Public Opinion Poll found that nearly four in 10 Americans are significantly more anxious about health, safety, finances, relationships and politics than they were in 2017. And a staggering 90 percent of Generation Z say they are stressed out, according to an American Psychological Association report released last October titled “Stress In America: Generation Z.”
Numerous factors — our volatile economy, our chaotic White House and shaky presidency, the seemingly nonstop occurance of mass shootings, and the upswing in natural disasters due to global warming has put all of us on edge and driven our desire to vigilantly control our environments. “A vicious cycle of distress and anxiety can lead to the urge to buy, then purge ourselves of the mountain of meaningless things, whose shiny newness soon wears thin,” family psychologist B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., co-author of the forthcoming book The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, tells Thrive. Hibb’s co-author Anthony L. Rostain, M.D., agrees, adding, “The obsession with accumulation gives way to the compulsion of dis-accumulation, and the repetition of this pattern continues.”
As much as I understand the origins of our cleaning and decluttering frenzy, there’s something Hitchcockian and eerie about seeing my mother’s need to eliminate every trace of human existence, an affliction that’s challenged my own ability to tolerate messes or even inoffensive pieces of floating lint, hyped as a form of self-care.
Lynsey Crombie, who appeared on four seasons of U.K. program Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, admits that trauma led her to a maniacal need to clean after her twins were born premature in her 20s. “That sort of caused and fueled the nervousness inside me to protect them by maintaining their environment.” If your cleaning is beginning to feel compulsive Crombie recommends this strategy: “Get yourself a timer. Clean for an hour or so, as opposed to the whole day,” she says. After the buzzer goes off, evaluate what you’ve achieved rather than what you haven’t. Then, skedaddle: “If you go out of the house, it will stop you from doing more and more,” Crombie says.
Wilson can get behind the restorative effects of cleaning up, but also warns of mental health dangers when your need to clean becomes compulsive. “Most of us feel compelled by the ‘ordered desk, ordered mind’ message before starting a big work project. We feel satisfied, relieved even, by a clean environment,” he says. But when urges to clean become “intrusive and demanding” interfering with other activities and relationships, then it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist, who can help you stop the cycle.
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