assortment of items reflecting hoarding.

Jan 2023 Issue | The Psychology of Hoarding

by Dhanishta Shah

Our homes have plenty of stuff we don’t use. We hold on to our stuff for many reasons, and for the  most part, our clutter is manageable. But for some, the amount of items and the inability to discard them reaches the level of hoarding. Even as minimalism gains momentum, hoarded homes are still very common. There are several TV shows that showcase the bitter-sweet process hoarders go through of decluttering as professional organizers take on the task of counselling and convincing hoarders to ‘let go.’

While there are disadvantages and inconveniences to hoarding, there are benefits to keeping old things and using them well, in a world where sustainability is a virtue. Sometimes it’s great to keep old stuff even for the sake of nostalgia. So, how do we discern if we are keeping items for good reasons or not? How do we uncover the thoughts and underlying complexes behind hoarding? How do we know if we have gone too far?

The hoarding mind

Before we dismiss hoarding as just a bad habit, it would probably be useful to look at some statistics. It has been estimated that between 2% and 6% of the United States population has a hoarding disorder, and the global prevalence rates are within the same range.

A hoarder experiences anxiety and distress when it comes to getting rid of possessions that they may not need. There may be severe thoughts running in their head when it comes to buying new things or discarding old things. ‘What if I need this? This could be useful in the future. What if I don’t get this again? Someday I will use it.’ All these thoughts lead to anxiety.

A hoarder may also be impulsive. This trait is seen more when they buy or accumulate stuff. A recent research study that studied hoarding behavior during the pandemic suggested that hoarders have a greater tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings.

The consequences of hoarding

Untidy surroundings may just be the tip of the iceberg. Excessive hoarding can cause many more problems. There are health and safety risks, including tripping over items, fire hazards, and injuries from items toppling over. And during a medical emergency, a packed home may be inaccessible to EMTs or first responders. Hoarding also negatively impacts relationships by causing resentment and anger among family members and partners who may feel second-place to a hoarder’s things. Over-cluttered spaces can cause stress and arguments, impede visits from family and friends, and strain relationships. Hoarders also face eviction and homelessness if they are unable to keep their home safe, accessible, and tidy.

The potential for hoarding

Many of us have a tendency to hoard and clutter. We may at times experience a reluctance to let go of things. However, when this tendency becomes so severe that it starts to interfere with daily living, it may indicate a hoarding disorder. There is marked distress that hoarders experience if they have to let go of stuff and the American Psychiatric Association classifies hoarding disorder as an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Do you wonder if you might be holding on to too many items? Are you feeling overwhelmed with the stuff in your home? As the new year begins, it might be good to take a step back and assess what is important, and what you can let go

Conduct some honest introspection through journaling. And take feedback from family and friends who know you well. Ask yourself and your loved ones the following:

  • How do you tend to accumulate stuff? Do you buy more or refuse to discard?
  • How do you store stuff? Is it possible for you to easily retrieve what you need? Or does it get lost in the chaos?
  • How do you discard stuff? Does it cause panic or resistance?

Once you have identified these basic points, you will have deeper insight into your potential hoarding pattern and you will understand which area to target. Then, set goals and break them up into subgoals so you don’t get overwhelmed. Here are some additional tips:

  • Get inspired and binge-watch. For some visual motivation, it is best to watch decluttering and cleaning shows that have motivated many people to address their concerns related to organizing. Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (Netflix) is a popular show, though here are some other suggestions.
  • Read to get organized. You may find this curated list of books on decluttering a good starting point for some guidance.
  • Get help from a professional organizer if you are overwhelmed.
  • Practice relaxation techniques on a regular basis to help deal with anxiety and impulsiveness that can contribute to hoarding.

And if you are concerned that you might actually be suffering from a hoarding disorder, you can try this  informal quiz. While this is not to provide any diagnosis, it can provide some insight for you to follow up with a mental health professional

You may need professional help from a psychologist and techniques such as systematic desensitization and other cognitive behavioral approaches are effective interventions. You can also connect with others and join a support group. For example, Messies Anonymous group (messies.com), is an online clutter support group

In the new year, we can make a commitment to understand that while it is important to take things as they come, it is even more essential to leave them when they need to go.

 

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