Do You Clean When You’re Stressed? You’re Not Alone

Some people with anxiety can’t find the energy to do anything. For others, their anxiety causes them to run around frantically, cleaning and organizing more than they normally would. If you’re someone who finds that the more anxious you are, the tidier your home ends up, you’re not alone. It turns out that temporary anxiety can actually cause people to become more obsessive and ritualized, according to research published in the journal Current Biology.

To see how people acted in moments of high anxiety, researchers from the University of Connecticut had a group of Czech students sit at a table with a decorative object. Half the students were told that they would have to give a five-minute speech about the object and were given a list of questions to talk about. The other half of the students were told to just think about the questions, with no threat of public speaking. All of the participants were fitted with a heart-rate monitor and given three minutes to prepare.

After the task, they were then asked to pick up the object and polish it until it was clean. The researchers found that the students who reported being more anxious and who had higher heart rates made more varied movements when cleaning the object, focused on smaller areas, and cleaned it more meticulously than the less-anxious students.

Surprisingly, many of the students didn’t even realize they felt anxious or that they were spending so much time on the object, but it was the threat of public speaking that caused the students to exhibit those behaviors. According to the head researcher Martin Lang, the anxiety tied to the threat of public speaking triggered these repetitive behaviors, which could mean that ritualization is a natural response to anxiety and a deeply ingrained pattern.

The hope is that findings from this study and other similar ones can help to identify more effective techniques for people to cope with chronic stress or OCD.