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What Causes Compulsive Cleaning?

By February 6, 2020April 4th, 2024Blogs, Dr. Jenny Yip, OCD

Maintaining a clean and tidy home is usually a sign of good emotional health. When cleaning becomes obsessive, however, an underlying mental disorder may be the cause. Obsessive fears of contamination along with cleaning and sanitizing compulsions is one of many subtypes of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Obsessive compulsive cleaners are compelled to clean, spending hours every day in ritualized activities that offer only temporary relief, leaving them prisoners of their own behavior, while alienating them from friends and loved ones.

Here is what causes this type of obsessive cleaning to take hold.

Clean Freak or Cleaning Disorder?

OCD cleaning goes beyond a simple need to maintain an orderly, hygienic home. It is a symptom of one of the many subtypes of obsessive compulsive disorder. Sufferers of compulsive cleaning may have a pervasive feeling of contamination by dirt, germs environmental contaminants, or chemical toxins. They may fear getting ill or contracting certain diseases, such as the flu, cancer, or HIV. Their compulsive cleaning may even be associated with magical thinking that if they washed/cleaned sufficiently, a negative catastrophic consequence can be avoided. Unfortunately, the compulsive cleaning is never quite sufficient, and thus, the feared consequence persists triggering further obsessive-compulsive cleaning.

The OCD Cycle

In order to understand why people clean obsessively, it’s important to know the OCD cycle.

  1. Obsessions: The obsession is an involuntary and intrusive thought or sensation. It triggers cleaning behavior by bombarding the OCD sufferer with fears that a particular surface or object is somehow contaminated or wrong.
  2. Anxiety: The obsessive thought leads to a build-up of unbearable anxiety.
  3. Compulsive Behavior: In order to alleviate anxiety, the individual resorts to their compulsive cleaning rituals. They might restrict their activity to one area — some OCD cleaners focus on handwashing and showers or disinfecting doorknobs and light switches — or it could extend to their entire lives.
  4. Temporary Relief: Cleaning brings relief from the obsessive fears. However, the relief is only temporary. Soon, obsessive thoughts of contamination return, and the cycle repeats again many times in a single day.

Breaking the Cycle of Obsessive Cleaning

The key to stop OCD cleaning rituals is to break the cycle. This can be accomplished by taking the following steps.

  • Confront Your Fears: Rather than avoid intrusive thoughts of contamination, the key is to face them and try to resist the temptation to respond with compulsive cleaning. The goal is to separate the thought from the action. In time, exposing yourself to the feared trigger will reduce the intrusive obsessions and subsequent discomfort.
  • Be Mindful: You can anticipate OCD urges, and eventually lessen the need to clean the same thing repeatedly, by being mindful when you clean an area rather than simply responding mindlessly to the trigger.
  • Accept Uncertainty: OCD thrives on uncertainty and is inherently a doubting disease. When “what if” thoughts begin to pile up, the best approach is to accept that no matter how much you clean and sanitize, you have no control of anything being absolutely clean.

Take Our Free OCD Quiz

Curious if you have OCD cleaning? Utilize this succinct evaluation to gain clarity. Please note, this tool is intended to provide general insight and does not constitute a medical diagnosis.

Renewed Freedom Center Can Help

To learn more about how we can free you from the grips of OCD, contact us today. Our specialists are available to answer your questions or concerns, and help you determine whether one of our programs is right for your needs.