Updated: Sep 16
By JESSICA BOOTH, June 20, 2023
Dr. Nicole Amoyal Pensak Quoted
Every night since my second daughter was born, I’ve done the same exact thing: at 7:30 on the dot, I tuck my almost 4-year-old into bed, then rock and sing to my 18-month-old, and put her to sleep in her crib. Then, no matter how stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, and burnt out I’m feeling, I start cleaning. First I tackle the kitchen, then the dining room, the living room, the bathroom, and the playroom. And the entire time I’m racing through my house, frantically putting things away, organizing toys into bins that will be dumped out first thing in the morning, washing dishes and pump parts, wiping down counters, and sweeping, I think to myself, Why am I doing this? I could be reading a book in silence or catching up on work. But I can’t stop.
Here’s the thing: cleaning is not on brand for me. Growing up, my family called me “messy Jessie.” When we first moved in together, my husband took care of most of the cleaning and organizing, and any mess that did appear didn’t bother me that much. My compulsive need to tidy and scrub didn’t start until I had my first daughter. Clutter had started accumulating in never-ending piles around my house. My moody baby I could (mostly) deal with, but the disorder? It drove me nuts. One morning, after waking up at 5 a.m. to feed her, I cleaned the house instead of going back to bed. When I was done, I was exhausted but weirdly energized. I couldn’t control every other change that had happened to my life when a child entered it, but I could control the mess in my house.
When my therapist suggested I go a whole day without touching the dishes in the sink to see what would happen, I canceled our future sessions.
It wasn’t until I had my younger daughter that the cleaning became more than just a way to release pent-up frustration. Between having a toddler and a new baby, the stuff in our house had tripled, and any control I once had slipped away, seemingly forever. I now felt an absolute rage when I walked into a room cluttered with random toys, bibs, cups, and socks. The hold the kitchen sink had on me was like no other. Any dirty dish in there, whether it was a silicone plate or used pump parts, got under my skin like nothing else.
I tried a new therapist in those first few months of the postpartum period and I talked to her about it. When she suggested I go one whole day without touching the dishes in the sink to see what would happen, I canceled our future sessions, telling my bewildered husband, “She just doesn’t get it.” I felt like she didn’t understand the full spectrum of what I was going through and it left me feeling frustrated and misunderstood. It wasn’t as simple as just not doing the task I was obsessing over.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that my obsession with cleaning was about more than a frustration with dirty dishes. Naturally, I Googled it, and found that “anxiety-cleaning” is most definitely a thing. “While anxiety can impact different areas of the brain, those fear and anxiety networks are connected to the part of your brain that is responsible for movement: the cerebellum,” says Nicole Amoyal Pensak, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey who specializes in anxiety and postpartum mental health.
Basically, anxiety stimulates us, and makes us want to do something with our hands. Jehlisah Vaccarella, a licensed social worker from Pennsylvania, puts it this way: “Anxiety produces restless energy that we often do not know what to do with. Some individuals resort to cleaning as a way of releasing some of that energy or distracting the mind from the anxious thoughts.”
On top of that, cleaning really does give one a sense of control. “It can be a way to ‘do something’ when you can’t actually do something about the thing that is causing anxiety,” Pensak says. “In this way, cleaning can be a way to self-soothe, which is adaptive.” Both explanations make sense to me. I have a constant need for control, and I felt like I lost a lot of it with two little kids running around. I have also dealt with anxiety my entire life, and I always feel better when I am busy.
I began having a nagging sense that my cleaning had itself started to get a little out of control.
And, as it turns out, cleaning to relieve anxiety isn’t necessarily bad. Pensak explains that there are two coping strategies to manage anxiety: emotion-focused coping (distraction, mindfulness, and relaxation) and problem-solving coping (finding solutions to whatever is causing the anxiety). “Cleaning can be both a problem-solving coping strategy and an emotion-focused strategy,” she says. “If the mess is causing you anxiety, cleaning can be a problem-solving strategy. Alternatively, if you are anxious about something that is out of your control, cleaning can be a good distraction to get your mind off of your worries.”
That said, there is a big difference between this kind of restless anxiety and perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder, a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder that is often overlooked, says Paige Bellenbaum, a licensed clinical social worker and founding director of The Motherhood Center.
The difference between postpartum anxiety and perinatal OCD is the behavior we attach to the feelings we’re having, explains Bellenbaum. With perinatal OCD, she says, there’s a “loop” new mothers experience: “She’s having thoughts of feeling out of control, she’s feeling anxious because the dishes are not being done, this causes her to feel anxiety in her body, to feel a sense of discomfort. Perhaps she’s spiraling around the thing that she feels she needs to do, and the only way that she can silence that rumination in her mind is to go and do the thing,” Bellenbaum says. “We have the obsessive thought that leads to a behavior to satisfy the distressing thought, then the act is done, and then shortly thereafter, the obsessive thought starts again.”
Perinatal OCD can also manifest in other ways, like laying awake at night stressing over whether or not your baby is OK, to the point where you feel you need to go into their room to check on them repeatedly throughout the night.
This all made sense to me. The mess all around me does make me feel anxious, which is a big part of why I spend so much time cleaning. But, as a mom, I also feel anxious about so many other things I don’t have control over: the safety of my children, the state of our world, working from home with two small kids, the ever-increasing price of everything around me, my breastmilk supply, and so much more. I can’t change so many of these things, but I can clean.
However, I began having a nagging sense that my cleaning had itself started to get a little out of control. I nearly missed a work deadline because I couldn’t pull myself away from detail cleaning my kitchen. My kitchen, you might have guessed, was fine and did not need to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. I’ve been in therapy for anxiety before — I know that when a behavior like this starts to disrupt your normal life, it’s becoming a problem. This, according to Bellenbaum, is when it’s time to consider whether your problem is more than just “anxiety-cleaning.”