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Why home organizing is my coronavirus coping tool

I’m finding solace in bringing order to my home

An illustration of a serene table, with a vase of flowers, a stack of books, and light filtering through a window. Paige Vickers

The week before I had my first baby. For months while my nana slowly died of cancer. The morning after an argument with my partner. And now, facing a fast-moving pandemic. In all these times of uncertainty and distress, I’ve found solace in organizing my home.

Sometimes it’s cleaning up an overflowing junk drawer, other times it’s reordering all the books on my shelves. But whenever the world outside feels out of control, I turn inward.

Over the past few weeks, my increasingly frenzied home projects have mirrored the pace of news about the novel coronavirus. In late January, as the outbreak spread in China, I labeled and neatly stacked my medications. In February, listening to podcasts about infected patients on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, I cleaned out my pantry so it would be ready to be restocked. In early March, as state after state declared an emergency, I went into overdrive, enforcing order everywhere I looked—arranging my daughter’s clothes, purging my mismatched food storage containers, emptying the freezer of too-old food.

By now, my family is holed up in the mountains practicing social distancing, after schools, restaurants, gyms, and more have been closed in my state, as well as in communities across the U.S.

My actions at home didn’t prevent COVID-19 from spreading, but I’ve learned, as a type-A planner, that I feel better when things are in order.

Studies have shown that our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions, and behavior. Unorganized spaces can negatively impact our stress and anxiety levels, both at work and at home. Research in the U.S. in 2009 determined that mothers who said their home environment was cluttered experienced higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Another study found that individuals who felt overwhelmed by their “stuff” were more likely to procrastinate. Other researchers found that disorganization can trigger coping and avoidance strategies like watching too much TV or binge-eating a pint of ice cream.

But there are also practical benefits to using home organization as a type of therapy. I don’t waste time wondering what black hole my keys fell into. When the kids have access to a well-stocked snack bin, I don’t use priceless emotional energy telling them (for the umpteenth time) how to make a snack. And after taking stock of my pantry in preparation for a possible quarantine, I could easily see what I had, and how much I had of it.

I can’t stop COVID-19 (although we can all do our part by staying home). And while I’ve checked in on my elderly neighbors and purchased a few gift certificates to help my favorite restaurants stay afloat, I still feel pretty helpless.

But I find peace through action, especially at home. There’s plenty still to do; I’m contemplating purging my clothes and finally tackling the photo albums I’ve been avoiding. At a time when the news just keeps coming and I feel paralyzed by the unknowns, I take a deep breath, look around, and think: “What can I organize next?”