Recognizing a Hoarding Disorder

What exactly is hoarding?  Psychology Today offers this definition of a Hoarding Disorder:

Hoarding is a disorder characterized by an ongoing resistance to discarding unnecessary items like junk mail, old newspapers, and materials that most people would consider to be garbage. People with hoarding disorder also hold on to personal possessions that are no longer needed, either because they feel personally attached to the items or because they believe they will need them in the future. The accumulation of clutter and lack of order and cleanliness can cause health and safety risks within the home and create social, professional, and functional problems for a person with hoarding disorder. The disorder also affects the people around the hoarder.

A hoarding disorder can range from minimal to extreme, as in the case of hoarder, Patrice Moore, who, in 2003, was buried under his stacks of paper and magazines that collapsed on top of him in his New York City apartment and landed him in the intensive-care unit. 

Randy Frost, Ph.D., a psychologist at Smith College and author of Stuff, notes, "The key is whether it interferes with your life."

Dr. Frost sites the following causes that may trigger hoarding:

- Genetics may play a key role, as children and other close relatives of hoarders are more likely to be hoarders themselves.

- Many hoarders suffer from depression and anxiety disorders and feeling down can worsen a tendency to accumulate too many things. Dr. Frost adds, "With depression, you often see people who have clutter problems, because they don't have the energy to get rid of stuff."

- While hoarding is related to compulsive shopping, an addiction to acquiring things, pack rats are distinct from mall rats in that they bond so strongly to their existing possessions. "We often see an attachment to possessions that is quite remarkable," says Dr. Frost.  “But this attachment isn't just a materialistic obsession with stuff for stuff's sake.  Sometimes the objects are reminders of a significant event, and contribute to the person's sense of identity."

- One study indicated that people with hoarding problems were also more likely to report feeling distanced from their parents growing up. This may explain why some people develop "possession fever" and others don't: things can stand in for the love they lacked early in life.

A hoarding addiction is possible to overcome, but it is essential to start gradually. “Many pack rats equate their possessions with everything that's good in life,” says Dena Rabinowitz, a Manhattan psychologist. “Going cold turkey—emptying your shelves directly into the dumpster—is bound to lead to regret, so set concrete boundaries for yourself that will allow you to de-clutter while still honoring your attachments to a limited extent.”

For example, if you have 2 boxes filled with cards from someone your care about, choose those cards most dear to you and discard the rest; instead of holding on to an entire stack of magazines, cut out the articles in them that really interest you and keep them in a folder.

When you're truly indecisive about keeping something, Drs. Frost and Rabinowitz recommend putting it in a sealed box for six months to a year. If you don't use it during that time, you can pitch it with little regret.




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