Obsessive cleaning and tidying


Being the kind of person who likes things to be clean is a positive characteristic. When things are in order and in a presentable manner, you just feel better. When it comes to keeping a clean house, yard, car, office, etc., you’ll find that neat and tidy people tend to feel less stress and chaos. But when does the joy of cleaning become obsessive cleaning?

When does cleaning become too much?

But when it comes to cleaning, when is it considered too much? When do you go from the average neat and tidy person to obsessive cleaning? When does cleaning become overboard and cause problems for you or your loved ones?

The answer will vary, but essentially if you’re cleaning has been causing some sort of issue or negative consequence with yourself or your loved ones, it may be bordering on obsessive/compulsive cleaning.

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For example, Shala loves to keep a neat and orderly home. Ever since she was a child she felt safe and in control when her immediate surroundings were clean and in order. You walk into Shala’s home and everything is in place and just about every nook and cranny is spotless. Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all. Keeping a clean home is a very healthy and honorable thing.

So when does Shala’s love for a clean home become too much? When does her cleaning become too much? Let’s take a look at Shala’s everyday cleaning routines and rituals. Upon awakening, she immediately starts cleaning her room. She takes a lint roller and rolls her entire bedroom floor in case any hair has fallen.

She then takes a dirty piece of laundry and gets on her hands and knees and wipes the floors of her home to get up any hair of crumbs that may have fallen. She then goes and wipes down the toilet and polishes every door knob in the home. To brush her teeth, she kneels down at the bathtub to brush them because she doesn’t want to dry out the bathroom sink, which is one of her rituals.

She goes to work, comes home, and starts cleaning more. She wipes down blinds with her hands, one by one. She then goes onto clean and dust for a couple of hours. Then, she feels as if she can relax and eat. She’s more than exhausted, yet she will do these things each day and on her days off she will diligently clean even more.

For some, hours of cleaning every day may not pose a problem, but Shala is already taxed due to a hectic and stressful work day. She doesn’t necessarily want to clean when she gets home, yet she cannot relax until she does. She also requests that her partner keep things exactly the way she wants and perform certain tasks the partner would not normally do, like drying out the sink each time it is used or cleaning the floors with a piece of dirty laundry instead of a dust mop. Her partner begins to feel controlled and carry some resentment.

Is your cleaning causing problems for you or others?

When does cleaning become too much? When it starts to cause the cleaner or the family members problems. For Shala, her health begins to suffer, as she is physically exhausted each day. Her partner also begins to grow resentful and feel very controlled.

Those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) will have a great need or compulsion to clean or perform cleaning rituals so that they feel in control. When they cannot keep up with these things, they feel as if their life is falling apart.

Good news is that there is help for those who struggle with OCD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has proven well when it comes to tackling those who feel the need to clean too much. If you are struggling with such a compulsion, consider reaching out for help. I have an online course that is available to start immediately and you can read more about it here. You do not have to continue to struggle with such a compulsion.

Further reading: Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, what are my options?

How to Stop Obsessive Cleaning

“Cleaning Table” courtesy of Phoemail

A woman joked to me once that she wished her husband could develop an addictive fascination with tidying! Could I, she wondered, help implant a “mania for cleanliness” in her husband using the dark arts of hypnosis?

She was (half) kidding but, of course, she’d hate it if her husband really became obsessed with cleaning. No, really, she would. Here’s a case in point of how obsessive cleaning ruins lives:

Shirley was held captive by her obsession

Shirley came to see me around a year ago.

“I scrub, clean, polish, rinse, vacuum, shine, dust, and scrape! Then I start all over again. My whole life revolves around keeping our house clean.” She had the haunted, exhausted, dark patches under the eye look common to all people suffering obsession.

I became painfully aware of a little dust in my office, books left on a desk, an unwashed coffee mug.

She read my mind: “I don’t judge other people. I don’t mind other people’s houses not being pristine. In a way, I like it. It’s just that I’ve always been obsessed with cleaning my house.”

I relaxed. “This therapy is working; I feel better already,” I thought.

It’s great to be clean, tidy, organized, and proud of your environment. But anything taken to extremes starts to backlash and destroy peace of mind, relationships, and health. There should be balance in all things.

How does obsessive cleaning impact lives?

The causes and consequences of obsessive cleaning

Why might someone clean obsessively? Shirley told me that she’d been “brought up to believe” that cleanliness was next to Godliness. (Don’t you love it when people say this? Why don’t they just say “brainwashed”? Only kidding!). As opposed to, say, being charitable or honest, which I’ve always felt were better contenders for God proximity. Her parents instilled in her the idea that “good” people, “successful” people keep a clean home.

I became achingly aware of my office again.

Now, this wasn’t some glib piece of off-the-shelf psychobabble theory. I’d already noticed how she looked fleetingly despairing every time she mentioned her husband (they had no children).

The good news? Shirley started to change her life. She brought balance – even love – back into her existence and started to feel spontaneous, released from her self-imposed pristine prison. How did we form an escape plan? What steps did we take to help her live freely?

If you clean obsessively, here’s a blueprint of what helped Shirley (and others) overcome it.

Step 1: Stop the obsessive cleaning in its tracks by relaxing first

Any form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) thrives on stress and anxiety. The activity is carried out as an unconscious attempt at assuaging stress. Perhaps there’s a superstitious sense that “if only I can clean enough, I can avert disaster or make things better!”

And sometimes the cleaning itself may serve the purpose of exhausting the person into a state of much-longed-for peace of mind and body. But there are easier ways to relax.

Shirley recounted how she’d spend the whole day cleaning their two-bedroom home whilst her husband was at work. Eight hours of furiously cleaning an already spotless house. Finishing, then starting over, again and again; seeking a perfection that was never found.

During our first session together, I told her on no account must she clean any less yet; but I did teach her to relax. She told me she couldn’t recall the last time she’d felt so rested. I gave her a relaxation CD to listen to and told her to do this before she started cleaning in the morning. And you know what?

It got her feeling so relaxed at the start of the day, she found herself feeling less like frantically cleaning. She still cleaned, but the intensity and need to do it had been discharged, to some extent, through relaxing first.

So relax before you clean.

Step 2: Break up the obsessive routine

Withdrawing from obsessive cleaning needs to be done in a way not completely dissimilar to withdrawing from a drug habit: bit by bit. Stopping cold can feel too overwhelming (and, after all, some cleaning is desirable!). Shirley was breaking her obsessive pattern by relaxing deeply before she got going on it.

Next I suggested that she start cleaning twenty minutes later than usual. Then the order in which she cleaned changed. I even suggested hypnotically that sometimes she’d forget to clean something altogether, remember later, and then decide just to leave it for the next day. She felt an almost delicious thrill of naughty delight when she later described this.

So very gradually, we just started to play around with the old pattern. Playing around in the way you might play with a tight knot until you find it loosening, gaining slack.

Think about how you can just get a little more creative with your cleaning habit. Changing the order or the time you do it, gently starting to loosen its grip.

Step 3: Look at your wider life

Obsessive cleaning may be symptomatic of wider anxieties. Once these anxieties are ‘put to bed’, the obsessive cleaning may diminish through lack of ‘fuel’.

Shirley described a marriage as devoid of life or warmth as an icy tundra. Her husband, it seemed, didn’t want to talk to her or even appreciate her in any way. He’d constantly criticize her. She, in turn, found herself wanting to please and appease him, constantly treading on perfectly polished eggshells.

We worked on helping Shirley improve her assertiveness and speak to her husband more openly about what she needed from him. As a result, she felt less inclined to clean compulsively. He began to talk to her, to suggest they go out – things started to move in a direction that would meet her (and his) real life needs.

Step 4: Do you have a fear of contamination?

Sometimes obsessive cleaning is carried out as an attempt at assuaging fear of contamination, but the feeling is that no matter how much you vacuum, polish, and scrub, there is still ‘dirt’ somewhere, even if you can’t see it – the invisible, all-pervading ‘enemy’.

I don’t want to be too symbolic (and ‘psycho-babbleish’) about it, but we could view Shirley as desperately trying to scrub clean a marriage that wasn’t working. The trouble was, because she was trying to mend something by focusing in the wrong place, nothing could ever be clean enough.

If you feel obsessive cleaning is wholly or partly maintained through a fear of contamination, it might be a great idea to seek help from a solution-focused therapist skilled in the use of therapeutic hypnosis who’ll help you overcome this fixation.

Step 5: Focus on what you are really afraid of

What really drives you to clean obsessively? Sure, it might be a fear of contamination, a sense of wanting to make an ‘impossibly perfect home’. But let’s go a little deeper.

Think for a moment; now strongly imagine (close your eyes if it helps) not cleaning. Perhaps even just for a day. Seriously think about the reality of not cleaning. What does it feel like? If it makes you feel a little anxious, then anxiety is driving the obsessive cleaning. When the anxiety diminishes, you take back the reins and begin to dictate when and where you clean. Once you feel calm with the thought of not cleaning so much, you’ve taken many steps along the road to recovery.

Really get into the habit of focusing deep within your mind on not cleaning and feeling relaxed about that.

Of course you need to clean a bit, but you also need a life. By starting to relax with not always cleaning, you’ll relinquish time in which to build opportunity for real satisfactions…

Step 6: Get yourself a life

Shirley started to clean less, bit by bit clawing back her life, slowly at first, then finding herself starting to use the freed up time constructively until it felt natural to clean five times a week, then three times, and then just once. Her husband was unsettled; the system was changing. But he coped. As I said, he made efforts to build up a life with his wife. They started doing things together. She needed other stuff to do. She did a course, got a job, and met new friends.

She still took pride in her house, but as she told me, “I have a life now, not just a cleaning schedule. If there’s a sock lying around or the carpet needs vacuuming, it can wait until I’ve finished doing something more interesting. And who wants people to have nothing more to say at their funeral than: ‘She kept a wonderful home; she polished well!'”

Getting over compulsive cleaning doesn’t happen overnight (although it can do, on occasion). But when you find the doorway out of the compulsion (which is closer than you think), you’ll always be pleased you did.

8 Things a Clean Freak Does and When Obsessive Cleaning Becomes a Problem

Someone you know may be a clean freak. Maybe it is the girl at work who has the neatest desk. Is she just a perfectionist or an OCD sufferer?

In the television series Monk, detective Adrian Monk works on the dirty streets of San Francisco, and his fear of germs is so great that he washes his hands every time he gets in touch with someone. This is how Monk has become a symbol of a clean freak and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Following a study, patients suffering from this condition said they liked the character, who was a winner even when his affection affected his ability to work. Monk is a germaphobe, and so are those who are obsessed with microbes and dirt and who feel compelled to carry out rituals of washing and cleaning.

For example, there are verifiers, obsessed with the fear of losing control and whose anxiety can only be reduced if they check something, such as if they have closed the cooker fire. Keeping things, counting and praying are also manifestations of this behaviour.

Why are they obsessed with cleaning?

Between 30 and 50% of adults with OCD claim that their problem started in childhood or adolescence. Why do people with this affection feel the need to wash, instead of counting? Still not known …

What we know is that all types of OCD make people free their anxiety because of an intrusive, obsessive thought. For example, if a woman accidentally cuts her finger, she wipes her wound, brushes it with antibacterial cream and bandages it. That should be all, but anxiety and obsessive thoughts start to ask, “What if there are some microscopic bacteria left?”

When cleanliness becomes a problem

Any office has a clean freak. Maybe it is the girl who has the cleanest desk. Is she just a perfectionist or an OCD sufferer?

It may be the head of the department, who at first glance keeps things just nicely arranged and clean, but he could hide his cleaning rituals. If he hears that a colleague is cold, he’s afraid that he might have gotten into contact with any object the sick has touched, so he will rush to the bathroom to wash his hands.

Other signs that indicate you are dealing with a clean freak are:

  1. Moving things around on table/desk in order to create a neat look
  2. Good at hiding things to make the living space look tidy
  3. Creative & decorative skills
  4. They never have dirty dishes waiting in the kitchen
  5. A pile of clothes on the chair is their nightmare
  6. They know everything about every cleaning product
  7. They always carry with them at least one anti-bacterial gel or wipes
  8. Public transport is a living nightmare for them because there are germs everywhere

Keeping a clean environment is a great way of thinking and behaving. But when it transforms into an obsession, it can seriously affect one’s social life. Meaning that s/he will avoid contact with certain people, may experience nausea or dizziness when in places considered to be infectious or dirty.

How can family help?

Families often make the mistake of letting their dear OCD sufferers alone. A man who sees his wife doing cleaning 3-4 times a day will think at first that he has the world’s greatest wife. But, in time, she will start losing her energy, become irritable or angry when things are not in the right place.

The family can play an important role in treating a clean freak. For example, after dinner, the wife hurries to clean the table, but her husband should distract her attention and say, “Wait 30 minutes, let’s talk about our day.”

It would also be helpful to understand the cause of the anxiety or of the obsession and teach the sufferer how to relax.

Is cleaning more healthier?

You might think a clean freak or a germaphobe knows extraordinary things about colds and other infectious diseases, but you are probably wrong. Germaphobes act out of absurd fears, not knowledge.

In fact, cleaning rituals can increase the risk of getting sick. They use perhaps the strongest cleaning products and many of them spend at least 30 minutes in the shower, so their skin ends up dry.

Also, those who obsessively study information about microbes usually have a form of hypochondria and not OCD. They spend their time looking for information, while those who obsessively wash themselves are too busy with the cleaning to have time for research.

It is true that hand washing is the most important way to prevent infectious diseases such as colds, influenza, hepatitis A, meningitis and infectious diarrhea. But that does not mean we have to wash our hands “to the bone”.

The key is to have a balance and avoid going from one extreme (being dirty) to cleaning every object you touch.

What are your cleaning routines?

Your Obsession With Cleanliness Doesn’t Mean You Have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

July 4, 2018 centerforpr mental healthrecovery

Tilted picture frames bother you. After cooking, you can’t stand the thought of going to bed with a dirty kitchen. The way that things are organized in your home are the way they have to be. If someone threatens your sense of order, organization, and cleanliness, you become agitated or uncomfortable. Sorry, you might tell them, I’m so OCD.

You’re falsely referencing a real mental health disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder. There are people who have a compulsive need to be clean and have things in their life be as orderly as possible. Obsessive compulsive personality disorder is a better fit for such individuals. While it is true that living with obsessive compulsive disorder can mean needing cleanliness or repetition, the rest of the experience is extremely different. People living with obsessive compulsive personality disorder realize their character and are okay with their need to be clean. On the other hand, people living with obsessive compulsive disorder are struggling with often debilitating experiences of anxiety, intrusive and disturbing thoughts, as well as a deep desire to make compulsive behaviors stop.

Mistakenly, people commonly believe that the demonstration of OCD is exclusively in behaviors regarding cleanliness. A variety of behaviors can manifest as compulsions of the obsessive thoughts in OCD. Some people living with OCD may not experience an obsessive compulsion for cleanliness at all. Instead, they may experience:

  • Checking behaviors
  • Collecting behaviors
  • Ritualized behaviors
  • Repetition behaviors
  • Reassurance/validation behaviors

Obsessive compulsive disorder can co-occur with substance use disorders, which can lead to complex demonstrations of symptoms. Professionals who live with co-occurring substance use and obsessive compulsive disorders are often using out of a compulsive need to relax the anxiety they are experiencing as a result of their OCD. Treating both conditions concurrently is critical for a professional’s full recovery and smooth transition back into the workforce. Without dual diagnosis care, only part of the problem is solved.

The Center for Professional Recovery offers the Professional Treatment Program, designed specifically to address the unique needs of professionals, like first-responders. Our programs are designed to treat co-occurring disorders which might arise and restore first-responders in a way which allows them to return to work and continue taking care of their mental health. For information on our full continuum of care for professionals, call us today: (855) 422-4129

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Impact of OCD
Prevalence And Causes
Coping With OCD

What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

OCD is a mental health disorder where an individual is negatively affected by obsessions and compulsions focused on specific themes, such as cleaning, having sex, etc. These thoughts can be intrusive enough to interfere with their ability to function day-to-day.

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“I’m so OCD!” The phrase pops up on Facebook, Twitter, in text messages and in conversations with teens. It’s a disparaging remark people often make about themselves, and it’s become part of the teen slang so many use to put themselves down (while secretly lifting themselves up). Unfortunately, it’s also a phrase that minimizes the true nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

As a brochure by OCD Chicago points out, the use of this phrase seems to imply that everyone with a tiny obsession or a bit of a compulsion has OCD, and they all learn to live with it just fine, when in fact, people who do have OCD face severe disruptions in their health and happiness. In other words, OCD is no laughing matter.

Repeating Thoughts

OCD is considered an anxiety disorder, in that people who have the disease face elevated levels of stress and worry, almost every day of the week. For people with OCD, the problem is thematic. The person tends to focus on one specific area such as:

  • Cleanliness
  • Order
  • Personal hygiene
  • Safety
  • Aggression

In some people, these themes begin to drive a series of repeated thoughts or obsessions. Someone with a cleanliness-related obsession might be convinced that all surfaces are covered with germs. Someone with an order obsession might grow tense at the sight of books in a sloppy pile. Someone with a personal hygiene obsession may be convinced that his or her hands aren’t really clean.

As a result of these obsessive thoughts, the people engage in theme-related compulsions. The person obsessed with cleanliness cleans and scrubs over and over. The person obsessed with safety locks and unlocks the doors multiple times. The person obsessed with personal hygiene washes his/her hands until the skin is cracked and peeling.

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There are some people who develop an obsession and compulsion that aren’t so closely related. A person might become convinced that he/she will hurt a loved one, and that person will banish that disturbing thought by counting all of the lines in a paragraph in a book or walking around the room in a particular way, over and over.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes OCD as a “disease of doubt.” A person with the disorder is unable to differentiate between what is likely to happen and what might happen or what is unlikely to happen. In fact, a person with OCD may always believe that the worst possible outcome is not only possible, but likely. The person may truly believe that the rituals will keep something terrible from happening.

There are some people with OCD who know that their rituals are strange or not quite healthy. These people may even tell themselves that they’re wasting time as they perform the rituals. But even so, they find that they are unable to stop.

Impact of OCD

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, many young people with OCD worry that they’re “going crazy,” or they’re ashamed of the thoughts they have and the rituals they perform. As a result, they go to great lengths to hide their disease from their parents and friends. Adults with OCD may also hide their disease from the people who can provide help, and they may isolate themselves socially as a result.

In addition, OCD simply takes up a significant amount of time. The rituals the person performs often must be performed properly before the person can be satisfied. It’s a bit like living with a broken record, playing the same commands over and over with no “off” button in sight. To give an example: A woman becomes convinced that the pothole she ran over with her car is actually a person that she has killed. She sees the body clearly in her mind, and begins to wonder when the police will be coming for her. So she circles back to the scene, looking for the body. As she drives through, she doesn’t see the body, and she begins to relax. But as she drives away, she begins to wonder if the person she hit just crawled a few feet away, and she sees the bloodied person in her mind, crawling away. She turns the car around for another look. She may visit the scene 100 times, and never make it to work as a result.

Due to their need to complete their compulsions, the people may be unable to perform basic actions such as getting dressed to go to work. They may be unable to focus while at school, as their minds spin out of control on hazards they face. Slowly, they may stop doing anything that doesn’t relate to their compulsions. This could cause them to lose their jobs, fight with their family members or lose touch with friends. The symptoms may ebb and flow, growing worse one month and better the next, but they never truly go away.

Some people with OCD begin to compulsively collect items such as junk mail, broken appliances, animals or clothing. They cannot bear to throw anything away, as their obsessions tell them that the item will come in handy one day. People with this compulsion may fill their houses to the brim with items, leaving no space to cook, sit or even go to the bathroom. Every available space is full of items, and often, these items have no real value whatsoever. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, people who exhibit these hoarding behaviors can face:

  • Divorce
  • Loss of child custody
  • Eviction
  • Financial difficulty

People who live with someone who hoards may have an extremely difficult time. They may find entire rooms filled with items, and when they clean the rooms out, the person with OCD simply replaces the items with new supplies. It’s not a problem that can truly be addressed without professional help.

Prevalence and Causes

The National Institute of Health reports that OCD is the fourth most prevalent mental disorder in the United States. Approximately two percent of adults have the disorder. Commonly, the disease develops in childhood, but it may take the person years or even decades to obtain a proper diagnosis of OCD. Many more people may have the disease and they may be living without a diagnosis. Since the disease is so prevalent, a significant amount of research has been done in the field, trying to determine what causes the disease. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, studies have suggested everything from head injuries to genetics to infections, but no definitive link has been found that can explain why some people get the disease and others do not. More research on this topic is ongoing.

It is known, however, that the disease doesn’t go away on its own. In fact, the longer that the person goes without treatment, the harder it is to provide effective treatment. The obsessions and the compulsions they spark tend to become engrained habits in the person, and those habits can be incredibly difficult to break. That’s why getting help is so important for people with OCD.

Coping With OCD

People who have OCD may consider it an incredibly private disease, and they may resist asking for or receiving any help for something they consider personal and intimate. This may mean that family members must live with the person for several weeks, or even months, until the person decides that the time is right to get treatment. Living with someone who has OCD can be a strain, especially if the person refuses to get help, but there are some things the family can do in the interim to help. These suggestions from the International OCD Foundation may be a good place to start:

  • Don’t help the person perform the rituals. Buying someone with a cleaning compulsion extra cleaning products only enables the behavior.
  • Avoidance isn’t your responsibility. Allowing the person to stay home from work, or answering the door to keep the person from talking to others is also enabling behavior.
  • Stop participating. If you always wash your hands when the person with OCD washes, for example, you may be normalizing the behavior. If you stop, the person might see that this action isn’t truly something everyone does for hours on end.
  • Purchase videos on OCD or pick up handouts from the doctor. Place them around the house and encourage the person to read them.
  • Join your own OCD support group, so you can learn more about the disease and how you can help.

When the person is ready to accept treatment, a visit to the family doctor is in order. Here, the person will answer a series of questions about his or her thoughts and behaviors, and the doctor may run a series of blood tests to ensure that there are no physical causes for the symptoms. If the person is diagnosed with OCD, therapies such as counseling and medications can provide real relief. While OCD is a chronic condition that can’t truly be cured, therapies can keep the disruptive symptoms from interfering with the person’s quality of life. For more information on treatment for OCD, contact us today.

In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth kills herself because she is haunted by the fact that she was involved in the killing of the king. She is seen night after night sleepwalking while obsessively cleaning her hands to rid them of the imagined blood stain. Knowing will never be clean again, she throws herself from the battlements People with obsessive cleaning disorder don’t have the same cause of their obsession but the symptoms are as pervasive and as challenging of those thoughts and feelings of Lady Macbeth.

The term OCD has become another TLA – three letter acronym which is as overused as LOL and OMG. The way in which it is used often undermines the serious implications for the person with OCD and their families of a condition which can take over someone’s life and like Lady Macbeth, leaves them powerless to lead a normal life.

We often say someone is obsessive–compulsive when they are overly attentive and meticulous, with a tendency to repeat actions or if they are what we may consider to be a perfectionist. However the clinical diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) covers a level of unwanted obsessions and compulsions that both impact significantly on the everyday function of people and often cause them significant distress.

It is believed that there are four sub types of OCD:

  1. Checking: Involves constant and obtrusive checking of a state. For example this can be where a person is unable to leave their home unless they have checked the doors and windows many times before they feel safe to leave.
  2. Contamination / Mental Contamination: Mental contamination is a psychological feeling of dirtiness or violation. In many cases it is linked to some event such as abuse or feeling out of control. This means that one can feel contaminated without having touched a contaminant but this then affects behaviour toward a potential contaminant such as bodily fluids provokes a strong reaction, particularly cleaning behaviour.
  3. Hoarding: The most notable feature of this sub type of OCD is buying too much stuff and an inability to throw things away even when they are broken, useless or worn out. They also have difficulty in organising their hoard.
  4. Ruminations / Intrusive Thoughts: Ruminations are generally where a person with OCD spends too much time pondering unanswerable questions, where there can be no satisfactory conclusion, for example : “what happened after death” While ruminations are needlessly time consuming intrusive thoughts are more distressing and less under conscious control. Intrusive thoughts cause the person with OCD to think about unpleasant actions and events e.g. the potential to harm a loved one. These thoughts are not under conscious control and cause the person immense distress.

Obsessive cleaning disorder is generally considered as part of the contamination area of OCD. In contamination disorder the need to clean and wash is the compulsion, the obsessive fear is that something, an object, substance or the environment is contaminated. The fear is that this may cause an illness, or death, to the person who has the compulsion or someone they love.

There is a standardised rating scale in the form of the Yale–Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale which can be used to assess the severity of the symptoms in people with the disorder and it is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Causes of obsessive cleaning disorder

It is known that obsessive compulsive disorders occur in between 1 to 3 percent of the population and that It occurs equally in both male and female sexes. However in 80 percent of cases, the symptoms present before the age of 18. Despite the considerable research undertaken into obsessive compulsive behaviour, to date, there is not a definitive cause for a person developing the disorder.

It is believed that obsessive compulsive behaviours are likely to be the result of a combination of behavioural, faulty thinking patterns, environmental triggers, inherited, or neurobiological, factors that may trigger the disorder in a person a particular point in time.

Signs and symptoms

The UK-based charity OCD-UK lists a range of signs and symptoms that indicate a person may have contamination i.e. obsessive cleaning disorder:

  • Using public toilets (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Coming into contact with chemicals (fear of contamination).
  • Shaking hands (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Touching door knobs/handles (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Using public telephones (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Waiting in a GP’s surgery (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Visiting hospitals (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Eating in a cafe/restaurant (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Washing clothes in a launderette (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Touching bannisters on staircases (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Touching poles (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Being in a crowd (fear of contracting germs from other people).
  • Avoiding red objects and stains (fear of contracting HIV/AIDS from blood like stains).
  • Clothes (having to shake clothes to remove dead skin cells, fear of contamination).
  • Excessive Tooth Brushing (fear of leaving minute remains of mouth disease).
  • Cleaning of Kitchen and Bathroom (fear of germs being spread to family).

For many people the cleaning or washing is often carried out multiple times. It is often undertaken in a ritualised way, for example one finger at a time. This repetitive hand or body washing will continue until the person ‘feels’ she or he is clean. A person without obsessive cleaning disorder will wash or clean multiple times, or until they ‘see’ they are clean.

For many people the time taken to ‘feel clean’ can have a serious impact on their ability to engage in work or hold down relationships. In addition there is the secondary physical health problem of the constant scrubbing and cleaning on the skin, especially the hands often with abrasive items and frequently with harmful chemicals. It is not uncommon for a person with an obsessive cleaning disorder to avoid entire places or buildings if they had experienced their contamination fears in that location before.

For people with obsessive cleaning disorder there are often significant costs derived from the constant use and purchase of cleaning products and items. In addition they may inadvertenly damage electrical items through excessive use of liquids to clean them.

Perhaps the most famous person to develop obsessive cleaning disorder was Howard Hughes. A brilliant man, designer, engineer, film mogul and record breaker he disappeared from public life at the age of 46 and spent the rest of his life in isolation from the world. Phelan (1976) documents the lengths to which Howard Hughes went to avoid contamination. Even having his hair cut was a three hour ordeal which involved operation style gowning for the barber and tools disinfected in alcohol.

Potential therapies and treatments

Treatments for obsessive cleaning disorders generally involve the use of behavioural therapies and sometimes the prescription of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants.

The behavioural therapies normally involve an increasing exposure to what causes the obsessive cleaning disorder while not allowing the cleaning to take place. Psychodynamic psychotherapy may help in managing some aspects of the disorder


Psychological interventions such as behavioural and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in combination with appropriate drugs generally together, have good results in the reduction of obsessive cleaning disorder and other obsessive compulsive disorders. However it is uncommon for the person to be free of all the symptoms for the rest of their lives. They key appears to be, they may lean to manage themselves better.

American Psychiatric Association (1994) DSM-IV-TR: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)

Ronald J. Comer: Abnormal Psychology 3rd Edition, Freeman Press, 1998

Phelan J (1976) Howard Hughes the Hidden Years Random House, New York.

(Source: http://www.stlocd.org/handouts/YBOC-Symptom-Checklist.pdf)

(Source http://www.ocduk.org/types-ocd)

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Do ‘Neat Freaks’ Have OCD?

Everyday Health: “Neat freaks” are often mislabeled as having OCD. What’s the difference, and do all people with OCD like things excessively clean?

Jeff Szymanski, PhD (ocfoundation.org)

Some of the confusion has to do with the terms themselves. “Obsessive” refers to a personality trait describing someone who thinks and worries a lot. “Compulsive” is also a personality trait, indicating someone who is hyper-organized, detail-oriented, with perfectionist tendencies. The “D” in OCD refers to “disorder”; this indicates that a person experiences significant, life-impairing anxiety. When obsessive or compulsive preferences are interrupted, it might annoy a person, but not cause them extreme, unyielding anxiety as is seen with OCD.

Jonathan Abramowitz, PhD (jabramowitz.com)

The main difference between “neat freaks” and people with OCD is that “neat freaks” like being neat. They want to be that way because they feel like it helps them and keeps them productive. People with OCD wish they weren’t that way, but feel they have to do their rituals in order to prevent some dreaded catastrophe that is unlikely in the first place. OCD is based on fear. OCD rituals are responses to obsessions. “Neat freaks” do not have obsessions like people with OCD do. Not everyone with OCD is focused on cleanliness. OCD is pretty diverse in terms of its symptoms and everyone has symptoms that are a little different – their own personal spin.

Steven J. Brodsky, PsyD (OCDHotline.com)

As I mentioned, no two cases of OCD are alike, and OCD can take thousands of diverse forms. Obsessions about neatness and cleanliness are experienced by only a fraction of OCD sufferers. As with all forms of OCD or any mental disorder, it has to impair social or occupational function or involve frequent excessive distress to be considered a diagnosable “disorder.” Some examples include tardiness, inconveniencing others, social avoidance or disruption, and in some cases the person’s physical health can be affected.

Charles H. Elliott, PhD, and Laura L. Smith, PhD (psychology4people.com)

People who are “neat freaks” generally aren’t terribly worried about their so-called problem. They are able to go about their lives without excessive distress. Not all people with OCD are overly concerned about cleanliness because obsessions and compulsions can involve a surprisingly wide array of issues.

Jennifer Iverson, MC, LMHC (jenniferiverson.com)

It is a common misconception that “neat freaks” or “clean freaks” have OCD, perhaps because cleanliness and ordering are common types of OCD. But there is a difference between being a “neat freak” or “clean freak” and having an actual diagnosis of OCD. Like many things in the field of mental health, a disorder is a matter of degree. Part of OCD is that the person recognizes the obsessions and compulsions are excessive and unreasonable and they interfere with daily functioning. (There is the possibility of having OCD “with poor insight,” in which case the person may not be aware of how excessive and time-consuming their obsessions and compulsions are. Children are also not held to the criterion of having insight into the excessiveness of their compulsions.)

Kenneth Schwarz, PhD (DutchessPsychology.com)

A “neat freak” is someone who likes to be neat. Of course, having to tidy up may be the neat freak’s way to avoid becoming anxious. That’s not such a bad thing. We all have our ways when it comes to avoiding what makes us anxious. OCD, on the other hand, is taking the neat freak thing – the avoidance of anxiety, the anxiety-provoking unwanted thought – to about 14 levels higher. It’s a mistake to think that excessive cleanliness is the only symptom of OCD sufferers.

Barbara Tako (clutterclearingchoices.com)

In my definition, the difference is when the behavior interferes with living your life. If you don’t socialize because your home isn’t “perfect” or if you turn down a social activity in preference for staying home to stay on a restrictive cleaning schedule, the behavior becomes OCD.

Allen H. Weg, EdD (stressandanxiety.com)

Here again, degree to which the symptoms interfere with functioning or cause friction with others are deciding factors in determining if the OCD diagnosis is given. Another factor is the degree to which the person can control his or her behavior and decide to not engage in a ritual by choice. While some people with OCD like things very clean and orderly, there are many who are no more clean and tidy than the average person. Paradoxically, if it takes many hours to take a shower because it requires the execution of elaborate and lengthy rituals, or it takes many hours to clean a room because it has to be done perfectly and by following a specific prescribed set of complicated rules, the person with OCD, even when cleanliness is very important to him or her, may forgo these activities because it is just too overwhelming to get started. So sometimes they may not wash or clean regularly to avoid all the hassle of doing things the way the OCD is making them do it.

Are You a Neat Freak?

“I can’t stand it when things are messy!” “Everything has to be in its place.” “It really disturbs me when there’s dirt or a stain on something.” Do any of these statements ring true for you? In fact, most neat freaks are quite up front about being one. You may even wear this label as a badge of honor because you have high standards. And indeed you would be right about that. Only there is one little caveat to this about which you may not be very vocal. Your standards are not rational because you are demanding perfection in a world in which things are simply not perfect. Yet this is precisely what you are demanding: perfection in an imperfect world!

So what if you are a perfectionist of these stripes? What’s wrong with it?

The answer is that your self-proclaimed demand for perfection is creating an unnecessary strain on your existence. This is because neat freaks typically catastrophize if their neatness demand is not met or might not be met in the future. And not met it will tend to be in a world where disorder, dirt, and stains are an unavoidable part of the cosmic inventory.

It is not your preference but rather your demand for tidiness or cleanliness that is necessarily the problem. I speak often in my writings of metaphysical security, and insecurity. The former involves a philosophical acceptance of the cosmos as it is, not as it must be. To this point, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus long ago stated, “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” This succinctly sums up the idea of metaphysical security. It is the idea that we can come to peace with the cosmos if we are prepared to embrace reality rather than demanding that it be otherwise. On the other hand, demanding that the flaws in reality be removed without a (virtual) trace will keep you in a perpetual state of anxiety.

Please do not confuse trying to be better organized with demanding perfect or near-perfect organization. So, there’s surely nothing wrong with clearing the table for a meal and doing the dishes after the meal is over. But demanding that the dishes and the dinner table be kept virtually spotless and without a nick or scratch is not to live in the real world. Instead, as Epictetus admonishes, accepting imperfection as an essential and inescapable part of everyday existence is the royal route to contentment.

So what can you do to give up this self-defeating perfectionistic demand for neatness?

As Aristotle would instruct, happiness arises by doing those things that are conducive to happiness; and by avoiding those things that are adverse to it. And if you happen to have a tendency to go to one extreme, he would tell you to practice going to the other extreme; so that you will most likely level off somewhere in the middle. So here’s what Aristotle would tell you to do:

Practice embracing untidiness! Yes, embrace it by letting be, even creating, the very untidiness you most deplore. So, if you demand that the chairs of your dining room table be pushed in at all times when not in use, then pull the chairs out of their respective places and leave them be over night. If the stain on your garment or on a rug is peering boldly back at you, then turn your back on it and walk away instead of attacking it immediately with a cleansing solution. Whatever perception of untidiness you most dislike, let it stand at least as long as it takes for you to see the world as it truly is; as an incredibly diverse and interesting panoply of imperfect things that, miraculously, still manage to resonate with one another in a unified, imperfect whole.


1. You’re always confused by exercise tips that suggest doing crunches and lunges during TV commercials. Isn’t that when everyone tackles dusting under the sofa?

2. You keep a spray bottle of white vinegar in every room (and one on your nightstand), because you can never be too prepared for unexpected stains, people!


3. When life gives other people lemons, they make lemonade. You shine your bathroom fixtures.

4. There’s nothing that makes you cringe quite like watching your husband use the crevice tool to vacuum the drapes. Though it’s cute that he tries.

5. You just don’t understand when people treat themselves by hiring a cleaning service. Where’s the “treat” in having to scour the house for the spots that they clearly missed after they leave?


6. Some people dread laundry day. Nope, not you. This is your Olympic sport.

7. You count the days until spring — not because you’re over the winter chill, but because it means you can power wash the deck again!


8. Your cleaning arsenal includes seemingly odd choices like safety pins (to clear away gunk in tiny spots) and sticky notes (for picking up crumbs and dust on your keyboard). You’re not crazy, you’re just crazy-clever.

9. Frankly, there’s nothing more satisfying than spending your weekend clearing a clogged drain.

10. Your friends have you on speed dial, because, yes, you’re a great listener, but also because you refuse to put your secret DIY all-purpose cleaner recipe on paper. They’re lucky you let them in on it at all.

TELL US: How many are you guilty of?

More Cleaning Ideas:
• 10 Signs You’re a Complete Neat Freak
• The Scrub-Free Way to Clean a Gross Shower Curtain
• 10 Surprising Things You Can Put in Your Dishwasher

Photos: Getty

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