I have a Confession. Sometimes when I’m alone and feeling tense, I take a break from what I’m doing, grab my iPhone and watch a specific type of video to relieve my stress: home tidying videos.
Watching a stranger expertly fold a stack of shirts into neat, vertical bundles or transfer snacks from store-bought packaging into clear acrylic containers with pretty labels is my guilty pleasure. Frivolous as they seem, these curated moments offer an oasis of order in a world that feels increasingly chaotic. After 10 minutes of watching makeup drawers reorganized, refrigerator shelves restocked, and laundry rooms tidied up, I feel calmer and clearer-headed.
While the dangers of doomscrolling are well documented, it is also possible to glean mental health benefits from conscious consumption of digital content. But what was it about these particular videos that I found so captivating?
“Our brains like order,” explains Kristi Phillips, a Minnesota-based psychologist. “And we know that less stimuli around us promotes relaxation.” She points to the popularity of Reels and TikToks for tidying up at home, as well as the recent proliferation of TV series like Netflix Get organized with Home Edit and HGTV’s Hot mess house.
But while we all enjoy the afterglow of a cleared-out trash drawer in real life, we still hesitate when it comes to tackling more complex areas of clutter in our lives.
Phillips thinks that’s what makes the videos I watch so appealing. “When we try to tidy up our own spaces, we have an emotional connection to these objects,” she says. Whether there are memories associated with these items or simply the guilt of getting rid of something you spent money on, the task of mentally weighing each item can be overwhelming.
She explains this with a video: “You see the fast forward how fast it is… so it gives us this hope and positivity from, Oh, I can do that too.”
Mindless Moments or Mindful Intervention?
Before and after makeover videos, whether fashion, beauty or home design, have universal appeal. But to better understand what’s going on from a neurological perspective, I turned to psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amit Etkin, professor at Stanford University and founder and CEO of Alto Neuroscience.
Etkin explains that the cerebral cortex – the outermost layer of the brain – contains systems responsible for a range of higher functions, including cognitive functions such as planning, attention, reasoning, memory and learning; emotional functions; sensory functions; and motor functions. Because the brain perceives uncertainty as aversive, the emotional domain responds to unpredictability with a signal.
In recent years, many of us have experienced heightened, ongoing stress, whether it be from climate anxiety, political discord and economic volatility, or the ongoing pandemic. What they all have in common is the insecurity that stimulates the brain to pay more attention.
“So this insecurity signal, which is usually a signal that drives an increase in cognitive control, is what we suspect you’re hijacking with these videos,” says Etkin. In other words, by observing scenes of order and predictability, I interrupt my brain’s uncertainty response and shift the focus away from these major stressors.
Careful handling of digital content
Sasha Hamdani is a Kansas psychiatrist who launched her own TikTok and Instagram accounts in the early days of the pandemic. She uses her platform to educate people about ADHD, a topic she speaks to both personally and as a clinician.
Hamdani says the videos that draw me in offer bite-sized gratification — quick hits when I’m feeling burnt out and seeking a sense of control. “These other things to take care of are bigger things and longer-term things,” she says. She describes Reels and TikToks as highly digestible content that is “almost immediately engaging by its design.”