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Why your home is important to your quality of life

This section is about your physical home space, and how caring for it can affect mental health, and vice versa. Small or large, having a safe and restful home space can have a positive effect on both mental and physical health. One study in a well-regarded neuroscience journal found that clutter can negatively affect your ability to focus on tasks1. Another study found that people who described their homes as “restorative” or “restful” had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who described their homes as “cluttered”2. A survey from the National Sleep Foundation even found that the majority (78%) of study participants were more excited to go to bed, and that they slept better (73%), on freshly cleaned sheets3.

Key Messages

What to know about home: 

  • Increased messiness at home can be an early warning sign of a mood episode
  • Depression may be linked with decreased home maintenance
  • Hypomania and mania may be linked with disorder and disorganization at home

How changes in your home can signify a mood episode

If you are finding that how you care for your home has changed, there are three ways that this could be significant:

First, increased messiness of your home can be an early warning sign of a mood episode. Noting this change in your home can enable you to respond more quickly to an oncoming episode and allow you to use the strategies described below to prevent it from becoming more severe. Research shows that there is a link between bipolar depression and decreased care for one’s home4. Likewise, episodes of hypomania and mania can be associated with decreased ability to maintain order and organization in your home.

Second, if your home has become messier than usual, it may become a source of stress for you. Living in a messy or unclean home can be upsetting; it can make you feel less able to cope and more vulnerable to stigma. If you are avoiding cleaning, you may start to avoid inviting friends over, which in turn may be a risk factor for depression.

Finally, if you notice you are feeling an urge or compulsion to acquire large quantities of objects that take up significant areas of space in your home, and that you are unwilling to discard them (called hoarding disorder), it can be a sign of a manic episode5.

A kitchen counter with lots of dishes and food ingredients left out.

How you can take action

Setting goals that you can follow through on is a key step in taking action over your household management. Try and set goals for cleaning up your home that are realistic and practical – tasks that are very demanding and large (e.g., “organize and clean the basement”) can feel overwhelming, whereas a series of smaller tasks that you can really follow through on and succeed at (e.g., “go through old winter clothes and donate”, “decide which baby clothes to keep and which to donate”, “recycle the old moving boxes”) will have a higher likelihood of success. If you’ve been feeling depressed, keep in mind that depression makes it difficult to get going so it is okay to set simpler tasks for yourself than you might if you were feeling well.

When setting goals they should be:

Specific (give a clear and detailed description of what you’re aiming to do),

Realistic (set your goal to be easy enough so it’s achievable even if you feel pretty depressed), and

Scheduled (set out exactly when you’re going to carry out this task). It can help to write the week’s goals on a chalkboard or app where all members of your household can see them, do their part in contributing to them, and cross them off when they are complete. If you find this task difficult, asking a trusted friend or healthcare professional to help you identify a specific, realistic, and scheduled goal in relation to your home can help kick-start the process.

An older Native American man is ironing a shirt. When living with bipolar disorder, finding realistic goals can help to manage your home living space.

Remember to set goals whether or not you really want to. Motivation is often the first thing to go when a person’s mood is low. If you can begin setting household goals, following through on them and checking them off your list, you’ll feel encouraged and this may help your motivation slowly return, as well as giving your mood a little boost. Act first, motivate later! If motivation is a problem for you in terms of your household tasks, it can be helpful to write out a pros and cons list of doing them versus not doing them. It can also be helpful to challenge negative thinking patterns related to household tasks, for example, all-or-nothing thinking, such as, “Since I didn’t start to clean out my bedroom cupboard as I said I would, I might as well give up. I’m never going to get on top of the mess anyway.”

Notice the interplay between your mood and your home

Also be vigilant for hypomanic or manic behaviour symptoms in your home life. Try thinking about your personal early warning signs for elevated mood in this context.  For example, one early warning sign that some people with bipolar disorder may experience is starting multiple projects, moving on to a new project before completing the previous one. Being aware of these signs can help you notice a mood episode more quickly. Some people find it helpful to have a 48-hour waiting period before starting a big project (e.g., repainting a room, buying a new couch, or downsizing to a capsule wardrobe and donating old clothes) if making significant decisions about their home when experiencing mania has been a problem in the past. You can learn more about manic and hypomanic symptoms on the Mood page.

If you’ve reached the point of hoarding objects which are filling up your household space and causing you distress but that you are unwilling to dispose of, you may need to seek the help of a healthcare professional. This may involve treating the manic episode that led you to acquire these objects, but it also may require working with a therapist to get control of compulsive buying habits. You may also want to alert a trusted friend or family member to help you identify and react promptly to this particular sign of a manic episode.

Take Action

How you can take action:

  • Set SMART goals (specific, measureable, acceptable, realistic and truthful) for home maintenance
  • Establish household routine
  • Practice self-compassion in home life
A white woman is doing dishes. When managing your home with bipolar disorder, it can help to set small goals for yourself.

Self-compassion, life hacks, and mindfulness

When feeling well, it can be helpful to try to establish some positive habits or routines that make it easier for you to maintain your home in a way that ensures it feels like a safe, comfortable, and relaxing space. Some people find that reducing the amount of clutter they have when feeling well can prevent mess from building up when they are in a period of low mood. For example, making sure you have only enough cutlery and crockery for several days worth of meals can prevent dirty dishes from building up by the sink. In the same way, donating or getting rid of old clothes to make room in your closet can make it easier to find space to put away items.

At the same time, it is important to be self-compassionate and realistic about the standard you’d like to maintain in your home. It may not be realistic or helpful to expect your home to look like a Marie Kondo episode all the time!

We know that routine is important for health and wellness in many people with bipolar disorder. You can try asking yourself if there areas of household maintenance into which you can introduce more routine. If you find household routines tedious, the other advantage of having a routine for them is that these tasks often go faster and can be a lot easier to stick to once a routine has been established. Plan some downtime for yourself for after the tasks have been accomplished, so that you have both something to work towards as well as a reward. You could quickly check out some of the popular “life hack” web sites that are often fun to read and help people to making household routines quicker and easier in simple ways (e.g., fill your sink with soap and hot water before you start cooking and drop your prep dishes in as you go, then wash them as your meal is cooking so that there is almost no clean up after dinner is done).

Some people find that an excellent time to practice mindfulness is during their daily tasks. One study asked half of participants to wash some dishes while thinking about whether they were doing the task properly, and the other half to wash the same amount of dishes while focusing on the task itself as a calming and sensory experience. Researchers found that the “mindful dishwashers” felt more positive feelings (e.g., calmness) and less negative feelings (e.g., irritation) afterwards than the others6.

Finally and importantly, be kind to yourself and those who live with you. All those who share living space, whether they be roommates, partners or children, need to do their fair share to the extent to which they are capable. For example, a child may not be capable of doing the dishes, but is likely able to put their books away or set the table. Likewise, if one partner works downtown and the other from a home office, it may be reasonable that the partner with the home office shops and cooks dinner, as they do not commute, whilst the other does the dishes. Working towards a fair division of labour amongst all members of a household goes a very long way towards improving your home space.

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References

  1. McMain, S., Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex. J Neurosci, 31: 587-589. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21228167
  2. Saxbe, D.E., Repetti, R. (2009). No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36: 71-81. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167209352864
  3. National Sleep Foundation. (2011). Bedroom Poll: Summary of Findings. National Sleep Foundation. https://sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/bedroompoll/NSF_Bedroom_Poll_Report.pdf
  4. Fagiolini, A., Kupfer, D.J., Masalehdan, A., Scott, J.A., Houck, P.R., & Frank, E. (2005). Functional impairment in the remission phase of bipolar disorder. Bipolar Disorders, 7: 281–285. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15898966/
  5. Steketee, G., & Frost, R. (2003). Compulsive hoarding: Current status of the research. Clinical Psychology Review, 23: 905-927. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14624821/
  6. Hanley, A.W., Warner, A.R., Dehili, V.M., Canto, A.I., Garland, E.L. (2015). Washing Dishes to Wash the Dishes: Brief Instruction in an Informal Mindfulness Practice. Mindfulness, 6: 1095-1103. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-014-0360-9