Here’s how starting small and choosing ‘high-impact’ cleaning tasks can help you get more done, experts say.
Major depressive disorder (or simply “depression”) can wreak havoc on your ability to perform even the seemingly smallest of tasks. For someone in the throes of depression, house cleaning may feel like a monumental undertaking.
“I think a lot of times people think of depression as just having a sad mood, and they forget that it has other symptoms — and a big one is a loss of motivation,” says Karen Lynn Cassiday, PhD, a clinical psychologist and managing director of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago. “Depression tricks you into feeling that nothing’s worth doing, that tasks like housework are pointless.”
Along with lack of motivation, according to Mayo Clinic, depression can also cause:
- Trouble concentrating
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Lack of energy
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Explained physical pains, such as back pain
- Slowed thinking or movement
- Feelings of hopelessness
These symptoms can significantly affect a person’s capacity to carry out routine responsibilities. “Managing tasks, including house cleaning, can feel (and be) impossible for some with depression,” says Alyssa Mairanz, a therapist in private practice in New York City.
Can a Messy House Worsen Depression?
Research suggests letting your home go can have negative consequences. As chores build up, you may feel even more overwhelmed by the mess, says Dr. Cassiday.
A study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that women who described their homes as cluttered were more likely to be depressed than those who found their homes to be restful and restorative. The women with less organized living spaces also had higher levels of cortisol, the hormone that produces feelings of stress, tension, and anxiety.
Another study, published in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, yielded similar findings. Researchers who conducted a survey of American and Canadian adults found that clutter had a negative impact on their psychological well-being.
“A messy house can be a bit of a self-fulfilling problem for people struggling with depression. The symptoms make it challenging to care for your space, but an unkempt home can prompt depression symptoms,” says Mairanz.
On the flip side, cleaning up your space can generate a sense of self-worth, Mairanz notes. “Physiologically, cleaning demands physical activity, decision-making, emotion regulation, and generates a sense of achievement,” she says.“All these things can lead to improved mood.”
7 Ways to Manage House Cleaning if You Have Depression
If you have depression, here are some simple ways to help you start tackling house cleaning duties if you’re struggling to keep up with them.
1. Start Small
You don’t have to clean your whole house in one swoop, adds Mairanz. “Starting small sets us up for success with larger projects,” she explains. “Starting with something manageable, like putting clothes in a hamper, will help maintain motivation through positive feedback loops.” (Positive feedback loops are actions that help to reinforce change, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Try it by identifying the three most important things you need to do (when it comes to your house cleaning goals). Focus on completing the first of those tasks, then try to tackle the others one at a time.
Concentrating on just those small steps makes it easier to get started and build that inertia to keep going, Cassiday says. “It’s like jump-starting a car when you have a battery that doesn’t work,” says Cassiday.
2. Reframe Negative Self-Talk
“People with depression will start to criticize themselves, and say, ‘I’m so lazy,’” says Cassiday. This negative self-talk can actually end up hindering your productivity rather than motivate you to get things done, she says.
If you notice that you’re speaking negatively to yourself, it can help to immediately replace those thoughts with positive ones. Positive self-talk can help increase self-esteem and boost motivation, which in turn can lead to improved productivity, adds Cassiday.
Some strategies for positive self-talk, according to the Mayo Clinic News Network, are:
- Be encouraging and gentle to yourself by responding to negative thoughts with affirmations of what is good about yourself.
- Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else.
3. Don’t Wait Until You Feel Good to Get Started
When people with depression have good days and they struggle less with their symptoms, they may use those feelings as motivation to complete a task, says Cassiday. For example, they may clean their kitchen because they know it will bring them a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment later on.
But you can’t rely on feeling good as your motivation strategy all the time. Part of the reality of having depression is recognizing that there will be some days when you don’t feel good — but you’ll still need to get things done on those days, too.
“So, we have to teach people to first learn to ignore the part of you that says I need to feel good in order to do it,” says Cassiday. “I can’t wait for feeling good. I have to think about something that’s really important, which is that action creates motivation.”
4. Prioritize ‘High-Impact’ Cleaning Tasks
Cassiday recommends choosing tasks that create a “high-impact” first to help you better recognize the value of your efforts.
What that means: “A bed takes up a large chunk of space in a room, so if you actually make it, it has a rather large effect in terms of the aesthetic appearance compared to maybe picking up five pieces of trash,” she says.
5. Ask for Help
If a family member or friend can assist you with cleaning duties, the extra help may jumpstart your motivation.
“People with depression tend to withdraw and self-isolate. Reaching out to a friend or loved one is a big step towards combating depression and can have immediate effects, not just on the physical space but on the emotional,” says Mairanz.
If possible, Cassiday says, do your best to ask for help before you feel embarrassed by a mess. For instance, if you haven’t been able to fold and sort laundry for a few weeks, it’s a good idea to try to reach out for help before the situation becomes unmanageable.
Also, if you have the resources, hiring a cleaning service may be a valuable option.
6. Track Your Wins, No Matter How Small
Actually write them down, Cassiday recommends. Include cleaning-related accomplishments, as well as other wins. She calls this a “‘What I Did’ list,” as opposed to a “to-do list.”
“When people are depressed, they tend to vastly underestimate the effect and value of their efforts,” Cassiday explains. “This helps you see, ‘I’m actually getting somewhere.’”
7. Give Yourself Grace
You may also need to adjust your expectations when it comes to keeping your living space clean. Realize you may not have the energy or focus that you used to — and that’s okay, says Cassiday.
It’s important to remind yourself that a messy or disorganized house doesn’t mean you’ve failed in any way. “You are not alone with having a hard time with this, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We all go through ups and downs with our mental health, and our space is often a reflection of that natural process,” says Mairanz.
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