July 12, 2024

Keeping yourself and your surroundings clean is viewed with a positive lens. Rightly so, it suggests you put hygiene and order in high regard. But it doesn’t remain the same when the cleaning bit becomes obsessive.

Obsessive cleaning, a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), compels people to clean and maintain cleanliness beyond reasonable levels. Please note it does not mean keeping one’s work desk squeaky clean or putting that extra effort to clean the bed for a good night’s sleep. So, those generic OCD hurls are certainly neither cool nor appropriate.

Unlike regular cleaning, obsessive cleaning goes beyond regular housekeeping and can interfere with daily life. Imagine, you have a presentation to prepare and submit, but you start cleaning sofas instead.

Obsessive cleaning, a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), compels people to clean and maintain cleanliness beyond reasonable levels. (Photo: Getty Images)

It can also appear as scrubbing countertops, sinks, and appliances multiple times a day even if they are already clean. Or, someone washes their hands excessively, often for several minutes at a time, and several times within an hour. Obsessive cleaning may also manifest as bathing a baby at night even if it is chilling cold, because you fear they may have contracted germs.

Many people think of this obsessive cleanliness as a coping mechanism or a stress-reliever. Experts say it could not only be harmful to your mental health but physical health as well.

What leads to obsessive cleaning?

Obsessive cleaning is mostly not intentional, but is driven by factors like underlying anxiety or biological reasons.

“The reasons for obsessive cleaning can be broadly divided into three categories – biological, psychological and environmental,” says Dr Rahul Chandhok, head psychiatrist at Artemis Hospitals, Delhi-NCR.

Genetics, vitamin levels and thyroid are among the biological factors, while rigidness and perfectionist traits in someone’s personality are psychological reasons that could lead to obsessive cleaning. “As for environmental factors, they refer to things at work, home and relationships,” Dr Chandhok explains.

Obsessive cleaning is often rooted in anxiety and a need for control (Photo: Pexels)

“Obsessive cleaning is often rooted in anxiety and a need for control,” adds Dr Ankita Priydarshini, consultant psychiatrist and founder and clinical head, Thriving Minds, Dehradun.

She says it could be a result of several factors, including:

  • Anxiety disorders: People with anxiety disorders, especially OCD, may clean obsessively to reduce their anxiety.
  • Perfectionism: Desiring for things to be perfect order can drive someone to clean excessively sometimes.
  • Traumatic events: Experiences like a loss or a significant life change can trigger obsessive cleaning as a coping mechanism tool.
  • Upbringing: Growing up in a controlling environment where cleanliness was heavily emphasised can instil these habits in some patients.
  • Health concerns: Some people may be overly concerned about germs and contamination, leading them to compulsive cleaning behaviours.

Obsessive cleaning can also be episodic and triggered by certain situations like stressful events, health scares and life changes. Obsessive cleaning could also be prevalent in situations when one feels they need to regain control over their life.

“Increased stress, such as work pressure or personal problems, can heighten the need to clean as a way to regain control over their life,” says Dr Priydarshini.

News of outbreaks of illness (like Covid-19) or personal health issues can also trigger it.

This obsession over cleanliness can also be seasonal for many, often associated with seasonal depression.

“Major life events like moving to a new home, having a baby, or losing a loved one can prompt episodes of obsessive cleaning as a coping mechanism to stress,” says Dr Priyadarshini.

How to identify obsessive cleaning?

The major distinction between regular cleaning and obsessive cleaning is that the latter starts interfering with work, social relationships and overall quality of life.

Though mental health experts admit that normal cleaning and decluttering is generally good, it cannot be confused with obsessive cleaning. “At the cost of their work and other priorities, the person wants to clean up all the time,” says Dr Preeti Singh, senior consultant clinical psychology and psychotherapy, chief medical officer at mental health startup Lissun.

“In the case of obsessive cleaning, you lose a lot of time and are not able to carry out other responsibilities,” says Dr Chandhok.

Dr Priydarshini shares some ways to identify it:

  • Excessive time spent cleaning: Spending hours each day cleaning, often repeating tasks like washing hands or cleaning floors.
  • Ritualistic behaviors: Cleaning in a repetitive manner till the time you are mentally satisfied or physically exhausted.
  • Distress if not cleaning: Feeling of intense anxiety or discomfort if unable to clean.
  • Neglect of other activities: Skipping work, social activities, or hobbies because of this compulsive need to clean.
  • Unrealistic standards: Holding oneself to impossible standards of cleanliness which often leads to constant dissatisfaction and feeling of inadequacy.

How does it affect your mental health?

Obsessive cleaning can be physically as well as mentally exhausting. Though many people may think it helps relieve stress, that’s not the case according to the experts.

“It is rather distressing. The person is constantly thinking about cleaning and they cannot stop doing that,” says Dr Chandhok.

As a distraction, it may appear as a short-term relief from anxiety but it doesn’t address the underlying issues.

“The need to maintain unrealistic standards can lead to increased anxiety and stress. Excessive cleaning can often lead to social isolation if individuals avoid activities or social interactions making them more isolated leading to social withdrawal. On top of that, failing to meet their own high standards can result in feelings of guilt and shame,” adds Dr Priydarshini.

“It ultimately reinforces harmful thought patterns and prevents the development of healthy coping mechanisms,” adds Dr Ashima Ranjan, consultant, department of psychiatry, Yatharth Hospitals.

The impact of obsessive cleaning is not limited to a person’s mental health. It also leads to physical health issues like skin irritation and respiratory problems resulting from excessive use of cleaning products.

Using excessive cleaning products can also lead to skin irritation and allergies. (Photo: Getty Images)

It can mess with your schedule as obsessive cleaning takes up a significant amount of time. Not to forget the financial strain, which can emerge from constant purchasing of cleaning supplies and replacing items.

What’s the way out?

While a lot of people acknowledge that their cleaning tendencies have taken an obsessive turn, others find it hard to accept.

Seeking help from a mental health expert can help treat the condition. The most important thing to keep in mind is to not accommodate this behaviour in your life.

“It is treatable. Do not accommodate it in your life. Seek help to fix it instead. A lot of people adjust their lives to make obsessive cleaning a part of it, that should not be the case,” says Dr Chandhok.

Published By:

Medha Chawla

Published On:

Jul 2, 2024


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