Declutter, Dust, Repeat: Are We Cleaning To Cope With Our 'Existential Anxiety'?

In a period of political instability, the rise of the 'cleanfluencer' is no coincidence.

I’m sitting in Box Park in Shoreditch eating a bubble waffle with my friend who has come to stay for the weekend. While we consume our bodyweight in Nutella, marshmallows and ice cream, we have a rather unexpected conversation about cleaning. You see, my friend is completely and utterly obsessed with Mrs Hinch.

Sophie Hinchliffe is arguably the best known of the ‘cleanfluencers’ currently taking social media by storm – and dusting up the debris as they go. Mrs Hinch has a staggering 2.6 million Instagram followers, whom she lovingly calls her ‘Hinchers’ and who tune in regularly to watch her Insta stories of cleaning tips and product recommendations.

The former Essex hairdresser, who also has a book out, comes across as incredibly down-to-earth and humbled by her popularity, so I’m unsurprised that people turn to her in their masses for inspiration. My friend tells me that watching her videos has become a daily ritual.

Since discovering Mrs Hinch’s Instagram, she claims that she has actually started to enjoy cleaning. I’m not sure I believe her, but then she shows me before and after photos of the cupboard under her sink – what was a chaotic jumble of cleaning products is now neatly stacked with storage boxes. She’s even fitted hooks for hanging her Minky cloths – the cleaning pad that’s a best-seller thanks to Hinch’s endorsement.

While my friend’s life isn’t totally ruled by anxiety, she does get anxious and admits that cleaning helps to ease the feeling because, when she’s scrubbing the bathroom or wiping down her skirting boards, she doesn’t have the brain space to worry about other things. It’s like a mini form of therapy.

Mrs Hinch herself has spoken openly about how cleaning helps her mental health. She previously told Essex Live that she’s a “worrier” and struggles with anxiety. “For me, to keep my mind off of what was worrying me would be to clean and organise something and love the end result,” she said. “It helps me control my panic attacks too.”

Since starting her account in 2018 and sharing her cleaning journey with the world, she says other people have messaged her to say she has “changed their lives” and even helped them with their own mental health.

Obviously it’s no secret that a house clean – or even just a tidy – can make you feel better. I come home to a messy house and I feel like I want to cry. While I don’t particularly enjoy cleaning, I do love the satisfaction afterwards of seeing a tidy space and the feeling of relief that my floor is no longer lined with cat hair.

But how has cleaning gone from a boring old chore to a major trend that people are clamouring to shout about and forming avid communities to discuss?

Two books landed on my desk in the space of a week – one about decluttering, another about cleaning. And all of a sudden people in my close circles are talking (quite enthusiastically) about buying Minky cloths and Zoflora. For the uninitiated, that’s a disinfectant.

Psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Katerina Georgiou believes the sudden interest has everything to do with the frazzled state of modern life.

“In our current society, particularly in the UK and the west generally, we are a lot more stressed, we’re a lot more busy,” she says. “People are working really long hours, they don’t have much free time, people aren’t sleeping as well. There’s a real culture for everything happening quick and fast. And with social media, things are happening much quicker and much faster – and the speed at which information is being churned is just too much, it’s like sensory overload.”

The consequence of all of this is high stress, pressure, a tendency to compare ourselves negatively to others – “and I think that stress is creating a lot of anxiety and unhappiness.” Add political uncertainty into the mix (ahem, Brexit) and this, says Georgiou, could be why we’re seeing people turning to ways to control their “existential anxiety”.

Kara Godfrey, 27, from London finds a spring clean helps her avoid low-level anxiety. Clutter and mess causes her intense stress, which in turn can lead to “full-blown anxiety attacks” as she fears she has forgotten something or lost something amid the mess. “Being able to clean helps me see a ‘fresh start’ especially coming out of an anxious period where I’ve been unable to do basic chores and tasks,” she explains.

It’s as clear as Mrs Hinch’s windows that cleaning is therapeutic for a lot of people. Reflecting on why this might be, Georgiou notes how it can help you focus in quite a mindful way – where you’re very much living in the moment and not thinking about other things: “As people focus on mindful activity more and more, and that’s becoming a trend, naturally doing something like cleaning is going to feed into that mindset too.” It can also be accompanied by a sense of purpose and achievement.

There are studies which have noted links between cleaning and improved health outcomes. One found people with clean houses were healthier than people with messy houses. This could be because cleaning, on a very practical level, is a form of physical activity. “If you spend your day dusting, cleaning and doing laundry, you’re active,” lead author NiCole Keith said. But if you take into account that multiple studies have shown doing regular physical activity can reduce the likelihood of experiencing depressive episodes (and generally boost mental health) then you start to connect the dots.

“When you’re active, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which are known to improve your mood. In other words, you get a natural high,” says Dr Mark Winwood, director of Psychological Services at AXA PPP healthcare. “It also reduces harmful changes in the brain caused by stress and can help us to see possibilities, instead of feeling defeated.”

Samara Linton, 25, from London, can certainly relate to this. When she’s in a bad place, she finds cleaning incredibly difficult and the laundry and dirty plates start piling up in her room. “The thought of cleaning and not being able to do it adds to my feelings of failure and uselessness,” she explains. But on the odd day that she has a burst of energy or feels a bit brighter, she’s able to do a big clean and says that, afterwards, it makes her “feel a bit more hopeful”.

Wherever you turn nowadays, there’s someone urging us to take control of the way we live. It’s no coincidence we want to watch Marie Kondo sorting and chucking and folding up people’s lives during a time when Brexit discussions are on and off the table, suggests Sally Brown, a BACP-registered therapist and coach specialising in stress and anxiety.

The same could be said about the popularity of Queer Eye – where five guys come into people’s lives and transform their homes, wardrobes, culinary habits, beauty regimes and self-confidence. “When the big picture feels out of control, it can be comforting to focus on a smaller element of our environment that is within our control, such as decluttering and cleaning,” Brown says.

Elsewhere, we’re seeing increasing numbers of people going vegan and ditching alcohol, and the ongoing trend in ‘clean-eating’ is understandable. “Focusing on what you do and don’t eat has always been a common way of instilling a sense of control,” cautions Brown, who also expresses concern about the possible “anti-feminist” undertones of the cleanfluencer movement – especially given that an overwhelming majority of the influencers in this space, and the people who follow them, are female.

“I wonder if there is a more sinister influence under the movement, an anti-feminist drive to get women back into the home, to control us by getting us to fetishize cleaning or to elevate it to an almost holy task,” she muses. “After all, if we’re devoting our lives to sanitising toilets, we’re not making our mark in the boardroom or in politics.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that cleaning isn’t always the best thing for our mental health. Sara McQueen, 25, from Leeds, has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and admits to quite a complex relationship with cleaning. “It definitely does make me feel ‘better’ but I have to be careful because it spirals into something impossible,” she explains.

“I see the dirt I’m cleaning and I start to see it everywhere. I imagine it on the walls and door handles, I worry that the hoover isn’t clean enough to use to clean, and the list of things to clean gets longer and longer.” At this point, it will start to disrupt McQueen’s life – she can be late for work or an event, or even consider cancelling social plans, because she can’t leave the house in a mess and can’t seem to find the right place to stop.

Be aware of this line, encourages Brown – when a habit goes from being healthy and positive to something quite neurotic and unhealthy. In the context of cleaning, she says, this could manifest in a fear of contamination, prioritising it over socialising or responsibilities to your family or work – or if not being able to clean causes you emotional distress. “It’s likely that it’s become compulsive,” she says. “OCD-type symptoms are a common way for anxiety to manifest.”

McQueen herself has mixed feelings about the rise of the cleanfluencer: “I have definitely read and enjoyed lots of blogs on cleaning because I want to feel like I’m keeping on top of things and cleaning up the best way.” But she warns that more care needs to be taken by these social media figures to encourage balance and the fact it’s ok to relax when you can’t get things as clean as you’d like. She would also like them to be more aware of the environmental impact of using so many products and encourage others to reflect on that too.

For people who do find their cleaning habit has gotten out of control – whether that’s because it’s stopping you from going out or it’s weighing on your mind when you’re out – you might want to start thinking about whether you need some other kind of support.

“Look at the root source of the issue,” says Georgiou. “If it’s anxiety-related, might there be other ways of dealing with that anxiety?” That could include talking to someone – like a counsellor or therapist – although she notes therapy isn’t for everyone and there might be long waiting times on the NHS – anxiety medication, exercise, finding a life coach, talking to friends or finding peer support groups.

“There are so many things you can do that don’t necessarily have to be formal, professional help,” she adds. “In the first instance it’s about recognising to what extent this is unhelpful or helpful, and if it’s unhelpful, how can you make sense of what you’re doing and can you put that effort somewhere else? If it becomes too out of control, find your support in other people. And if that’s not enough, then move to professional support.”

Ultimately though, if cleaning is helping your anxiety and you have a hold on it, there’s no reason to stop doing it. Linton describes how it impacts her when she is finally able to get up and clean: “It is a reminder that I can do things and I can make things beautiful and add something positive.”

And who wouldn’t want to feel like that?