"You don't know me, but I'm Monica Geller, Ross' sister. I heard how dirty your apartment is. Would it be okay if I cleaned it?"
The 25th anniversary of Friends has given us lots of reasons to be nostalgic. For me, it's my affinity with Monica's obsessive cleaning habits. In the episode, The One With The Dirty Girl, Monica literally couldn't sleep thinking about the messy state of Ross' date's home – despite never meeting this stranger until the end of the show when she offers her free cleaning services.
The idea of other people's houses being dirty stresses me out too. During a recent stay at a friend's place, I found myself vacuuming and wiping down bathroom surfaces within an hour of arriving. And you know what? It seriously alleviated my anxiety.
Most people hate cleaning, but for me and the Monicas of the world, cleaning is our happy place. After a long day at work, running a mop around your kitchen is probably the last thing you want to do for stress-relief. Why do I clean when I'm anxious or uncomfortable?
It's because cleaning is cathartic. Like therapy. It's a way of unleashing what's going on inside you in a physical and safe way. I can recall various times in my life when I found myself cleaning voraciously during tough times. For example, the day one of my dogs died I spent the afternoon scrubbing the deck. After I lost a job, you would have found me on my hands and knees with the Exit Mould on the bathroom floor. If I get off a heated phone call with someone in my family, my first desire is to make sure every item of dirty laundry in the house is washed.
There's a meditative, mindfulness component to cleaning. When you're running a vacuum over the carpet, making sure to leave those satisfying lines throughout, you get a sense of zen. You're completely present in the moment and completely focused on something simple that results in clear and immediate pleasure. The same goes for ironing shirts or mopping dirt off the floor – you can fully get into the moment, block out external thoughts and stimuli, and just BE.
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It's for these reasons that I often end up cleaning things by hand, rather than relying on appliances to do it for me. Take the dishes for example. Filling a sink with hot soapy water to wash plates is like an immersive mini-bath. Your hands get a warm sensation, a cheery lavender or citrusy smell fills your nostrils as you inhale in and out, and you instantly see your kitchen items go from stained and crusty to perfectly smooth and shiny. It's heaven.
What cleaning gives you is a feeling of accomplishment, which is sometimes all you need to pull you through a mildly stressful day. You need a "win" after feeling like life won't cut a break, and you get one. Cleaning is completely within your power and aids that feeling of helplessness when there are other things going on that aren't.
A 2015 study found that temporary anxiety actually makes for the best final cleaning results. Stress can result in ritualised behaviour, which is ideal for repetitive and rigid hand movements, the researchers found. This means you do an extremely thorough cleaning job.
Dr. Alicia Clark, author of the book Hack Your Anxiety, explains what this is really all about. "We want to be able to do something when we get anxious, and what we really want is to be in control and take action," she says. "While there are times we have to accept some situations in life, we do not have to accept an untidy home."
I like to see cleaning is an outlet for energy that is otherwise being bottled up inside me. Like Dr. Clark said, I'm looking for control when I feel I don't have any, and it's a realistic and achievable way to have a sense of it come over you.
When you're stressed or anxious, this feeling is all you really need. Short-lived gratification of achieving dominance over a situation scratches an itch that otherwise keeps negativity free-flowing throughout your body. Sure, you could get this same feeling through a glass or two of wine, a massage, or a yoga session. But while they might declutter your mind for a bit, why not do an activity that actually declutters your living space, too?