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A Surprisingly Effective Way of Coping With Stress

Research examines whether self-grooming and cleaning relieve stress.

Key points

  • One way humans and many other mammals deal with stress is by engaging in self-cleaning and grooming.
  • New research shows grooming behavior reduces the effects of physical and psychological stressors.
  • Cleaning reduces stress even when the stressor has nothing to do with dirt, contamination, and disease.
Source: Olichel/Pixabay

Coping refers to efforts intended to manage taxing and overwhelming demands. Observational research shows that many animals (e.g., arthropods, birds) cope with stressors by engaging in self-grooming and cleaning behaviors. Might cleaning behaviors be similarly beneficial, as a coping mechanism, in human beings exposed to stressful situations?

A recent study by Lee and colleagues found that actual and simulated cleaning reduce the effects of stressors. As the authors explain in their paper published in the May 2023 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, this was surprisingly true even when the stressors were unrelated to dirt, germs, and disease.

Investigating cleaning as a stress coping strategy

Studies 1A and 1B: 1,161 U.K. participants (714 females; average of 38 years old) watched a video intended to elicit anxiety. This was a video of a nervous bungee jumper getting ready to jump.

Individuals in the control conditions then watched an emotionally neutral clip—how to peel an egg or draw a circle—but those in the experimental condition viewed a video on how to wash one’s hands. All participants then completed measures of their feelings.

Later, a replication study (1b) was conducted using the same design but with 1,377 Americans.

Study 1C: 465 American participants (278 females) completed the anxiety-provoking task described above. Afterward, those in the experimental conditions were randomly assigned to read one of two instructions:

  • Touch condition. “Imagine you are touching your arms, face, neck, and hair to thoroughly feel yourself.”
  • Cleaning condition. “Imagine you are getting your arms, face, neck, and hair thoroughly cleansed with water.”

Subsequently, the same dependent measures from the previous investigation were completed.

Study 2: 74 Canadians.

This investigation involved an elaborate procedure:

After participants arrived at the lab, physiological measurements were taken—this would be repeated several times during the procedure. Psychological measures (e.g., self-esteem, locus of control) were then given.

The modified Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) was subsequently administered.

TSST is a task designed to induce stress; it involves giving a public presentation and doing mental arithmetic. TSST was given two times, once before and once following the cleaning task.

After the test, participants were randomly assigned to either examine or actually use an antiseptic wipe. Those in the control condition were asked to only look at the wipe.

To determine if the cleaning manipulation impacted cardiovascular reactivity to stress, another round of the Trier Social Stress Test was administered.

Self-grooming is an effective coping mechanism

Analysis of data from the experiments showed:

  • Visual simulation of cleaning alleviates residual anxiety from a stress-inducing physical scene (Experiments 1a and 1b).”
  • This cleaning effect is empirically distinguishable from the effect of touch (Experiment 1c).”
  • Actual cleaning behavior enhances adaptive cardiovascular reactivity to a highly stressful context of social performance and evaluation, especially for people who are motivationally engaged (Experiment 2).”

To sum up, not only actual cleaning but also a visual simulation of it reduced the effects of both physical and psychological stressors. Importantly, these beneficial stress-relieving effects were observed even when the act of cleaning had nothing to do with the stressors.

Source: klimkin/Pixabay

What’s special about cleaning?

During the pandemic’s early stages, we were often reminded of the public health benefits of washing one’s hands and, more generally, of cleaning.

But in addition to its physical health and public health benefits, cleaning has positive psychological, cultural, and religious meanings related to purity.

Indeed, many religious cleansing and purification rituals involve separating and neutralizing the bad past self from the good future self.

This separation reduces negative and increases positive self-views, which are important determinants of mental health and well-being.

For instance, positive self-views—thinking of oneself as good, stable, competent, self-confident, whole, and in control—help us function better and become resilient.

In short, the act of cleaning may reduce physical, psychological, and symbolic threats to the self.


When faced with stress, we cope using various emotion regulation and other strategies—mindfulness, self-affirmation, buying things, playing computer games, etc.

Coping strategies used are usually related to the nature of the stressor. For instance, we tend to use the technique of social support to manage feelings of loneliness. Or engage in cleaning behavior when worried about catching an illness.

However, new research shows that self-grooming and cleaning behavior appears to help even when the fear is not due to germs or dirt—as in the example of coping with apprehension experienced after watching the video of a nervous person getting ready to bungee jump.

Hence, self-grooming may be an effective coping mechanism for dealing with more than just contamination and disease stressors.

So, it might be a good idea to add personal grooming and cleaning to one’s coping toolbox.

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