New psychology research indicates that cleaning oneself helps alleviate the anxiety from stress-inducing events

According to recent research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, washing yourself helps lessen the psychological effects of stressful experiences. Some of the earliest scientific evidence that personal hygiene is associated with anxiety decreases may be seen in the new findings.

But why would researchers want to look at the connection between stress and self-cleaning? Blame it on my possibly subclinical obsessive-compulsive nature, said Spike W. S. Lee, head of the Mind and Body Lab and assistant professor of management and psychology at the University of Toronto.

"I've always found the psychology of cleaning activity to be fascinating. Why do rites of cleansing occur in all major religions? Why do a number of non-human creatures clean after stressful situations? What is the meaning of phrases like "wash the slate clean"?

Using Prolific, Lee and his team of researchers attracted 1,150 individuals and showed them a quick video of a fearful lady perched precariously on a bungee jump platform. It has previously been demonstrated that seeing the film made people feel tense, anxious, and uneasy. The next step was to assign the participants to view either a video on how to wash one's hands correctly, a film on how to draw a circle, or a video on how to peel an egg.

Comparatively to those who saw the other two movies, those who watched the one on handwashing tended to report lower levels of anxiety afterward. The results were then repeated in a second study with 1,377 participants chosen from Amazon's Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform.

However, the researchers pointed out that self-touch was present in the handwashing film. What seemed to be cleaning effects may have actually been touch effects as contact is relaxing and comforting, they speculated. The researchers carried up a third experiment with 465 individuals in which the three movies were swapped out for mental imagery exercises in order to control for this potential confound.

The participants were given one of three options after seeing the tense-inducing video: envision washing your arms, face, neck, and hair fully with water; think touching your arms, face, neck, and hair to feel yourself thoroughly; or don't image anything at all.

According to their theory, Lee and his coworkers discovered that anxiety levels tended to be lower among those who imagined cleaning as opposed to those who imagined contact and those in the control condition.

According to Lee, "When we practice cleaning behavior, it entails removing residues from our body (for example, wiping dirt off your hands)." "This fundamental, physical act of removing residues from our bodies might set off a deeper psychological type of separation, namely erasing the lingering effects of the past from the present" (e.g., wiping the slate clean). Psychologically distancing the difficult previous experiences from your present will ease your tension if they were stressful.

The researchers also discovered physiological evidence to support their idea in their fourth and final experiment. In the study, 74 students from a major university in Canada underwent two rounds of an anxious assignment while their heart rates were monitored.

The researchers explained to the participants that they wanted to learn more about the physiological reactions to mental and academic challenges. They were told to deliver a 5-minute speech outlining their qualifications for the position of team head at a consulting business. Two judges wearing white lab coats listened to them speak in front of them, but they "looked severe the whole time, with blank faces, no smiling, and no hint of acceptance."

Next, individuals were allocated at random to either use or only study an antiseptic wipe. They finished a 10-minute filler exercise before using or just looking at sanitizing gel. Participants then gave a second speech, which was intended to be a little less nerve-wracking than the first. The judges gave some encouraging input and seemed to be in a better mood.

The final experiment's results showed, according to the researchers, that "cleaning behavior leads in a more adaptable profile of cardiovascular reactivity."

Lee did point out that the study, like all research, has certain limitations. The samples we used to show the phenomena had a wide age range, but they were solely collected from Western populations, he said. It remains to be seen if the phenomena spreads to other civilizations. Additionally, our findings encourage further study to look at any other protective benefits that can arise from regular cleaning habits.

The study, “Actual Cleaning and Simulated Cleaning Attenuate Psychological and Physiological Effects of Stressful Events“, was authored by Spike W. S. Lee, Kobe Millet, Amir Grinstein, Koen H. Pauwels, Phillip R. Johnston, Alexandra E. Volkov, and Arianne J. van der Wal.