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What Is Rage Cleaning And Why Is Everyone Doing It?

Marie Kondo should be proudly handing out minimalist medals.

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Garbage can, trash and recycling on pink background
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I’m an early morning runner, and one of the funniest by-products of being out and about before the garbage truck is that I get to see what trash — and sometimes treasures — people are hauling to the curb to put in their trash cans and recycle bins. I can tell you who drinks red and who drinks white, who still loves canned tomato soup, and who may or may not have an unhealthy addiction to Amazon and QVC.

But these past couple weeks of running by garbage cans? Well, it is telling a completely different kind of story. Not only are people clearly drinking more of the red and the white, they’re throwing out piles and piles of household items, the likes of which would have Marie Kondo herself proudly handing out minimalist medals curbside.

What’s going on here is no mystery, and I can hardly blame the frazzled mother of five who lives down the street for tossing out two gigantic pink flamingo pool toys in her trash a few days ago. As I ran by her bins that day, I knew exactly what was going on in that house, and I know it because I’ve been doing it, too, during this sheltering in place. It’s called “rage cleaning,” and every woman I know has been suffering from a massive case of it. Not only is it actually normal to be running around in a panic purging closets and disinfecting baseboards, but also there is a psychological explanation for it.

Rage cleaning is a term we’ve collectively given to those frantic moments of bubbling-over angry mental energy that we find we can release only by cleaning. Yes, cleaning. But it’s not really the literal act of cleaning in and of itself that is helping to burn off and release our pent up and toxic mental energy. It’s the feeling of being back in control of things that we feel while cleaning that is helping keep a lid on that simmering pot of emotions that is dangerously close to exploding.

And what better time than during a pandemic — when life is completely upside down, we have no idea what kind of horrors each day’s news cycle will bring, and we are stuck inside with our family — to start to chuck out all that crap in our homes? So those floating pool flamingos are not bringing you joy anymore? Well, neither is homeschooling or having no toilet paper, so go ahead and throw them away!

In all seriousness, rage cleaning and purging our homes of old junk while total uncertainty looms just outside our front door are perfectly normal ways to cope. At this moment we need all the coping mechanisms we can get. The overnight transformation of our normal and regularly busy, fulfilling lives into new barely recognizable ones has millions of us teetering on the edge, and it’s primarily that loss of control over the day-to-day that makes us crave things we can control.

A clean home is something we most certainly can control! Now add to that the fact we’re stuck at home, and the plethora of pandemic anxieties swirling in our head about when this is all going to end have nowhere to go but, well, to the curb. We may not be able to control how fast a lethal virus is spreading in our communities (and all of its frightening consequences), but you know what we can control? How organized our closets look, how shiny the floors gleam, and how clean our countertops are.

Stephen Miller, M.D., a practicing psychiatrist in Virginia, says it is indeed anxiety that lends itself to rage cleaning and other attempts at having things in order, and we see it primarily “when a situation is making someone feel out of control.” He adds that for people who may have even mild obsessive-compulsive traits, rage cleaning is more likely, and that often a sense of order and a clean home help anxious people relax and make it seem like their life is in order — even when it’s not.

And our world right now? Clearly it seems very much NOT in order. Hence, throngs of homebound, self-proclaimed cleaning ladies are not only rushing around scrubbing doorknobs to ward off a virus, but also cleaning and organizing their homes from top to bottom in a frenzy.

During a crisis, there are always emotional tools and mood crutches that people embrace in order to cope and just get through the turmoil. While many of those things are dangerous and addictive (think drugs, alcohol and overeating), rage cleaning is not. If that’s your vice of choice right now, by all means allow yourself to temporarily clean and purge away.

However, after this is all over and life returns to normal, if you’re still feeling an obsessive-compulsive urge to rage clean and it is interfering with your normal daily routine, it’s vital you speak to a therapist or your primary care physician. You must seek help and treatment for dealing with emotional trauma that the pandemic (or something else) may have left you with, thus causing irrational new behaviors and compulsions.