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With popular reality shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive, this problem has come into great focus. The viewer peeks into the lives of people who are overwhelmed with belongings; every room of a hoarder's house contains mountains of clutter, garbage, and junk that the average person would easily toss. The spectrum from clutter to hoarding is wide, but people can become emotionally attached to their piles of stuff, not willing or able to let anything go.

Why People Hoard

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According to the American Psychiatric Association, 2 to 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from hoarding. The tendency to gather and hold onto items can appear as early as one’s adolescent years, often worsening with age. A serious case can result in poor health and safety concerns, and the person who suffers can also develop poor personal hygiene.

What causes hoarding?

There are known risk factors such as experiencing a traumatic event; persistent difficulty making decisions; and having a family member who also hoards. Individuals who have both OCD and hoarding symptoms were more likely to have experienced at least one traumatic life event in comparison to those with OCD alone. The obsessive need to collect and keep material objects may be a way for these sufferers to cope.

What are the symptoms of hoarding?

• Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of actual value.

• Emotional distress over parting with possessions.

• Allowing possessions to accumulate to the point of congesting living space, often requiring intervention by others.

• Allowing hoarding to interfere with day-to-day life, including work or relationships with friends or family.

• Hoarding cannot be better explained by another mental disorder such as brain injury, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or major mental illness

 

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The Science of Hoarding

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Accumulating belongings may fill an emotional hole left by trauma; it allows individuals to avoid dealing with their pain. Many people who hoard describe a rush when acquiring new items, especially if the item is free or considered a bargain; and these individuals go to great lengths to justify their collections when questioned by others. If a family member or friend removes these belongings without the person’s permission, the person feels violated and anxiety may be triggered.

Is a sufferer’s brain wired differently?

One study asked participants to make decisions about keeping or chucking items, some belonged to them or some did not belong to them. Researchers found abnormal activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula of the brain, known for decision-making and risk assessment. The people who hoard are unable to make decisions about discarding the items they own.

Is there a gene for hoarding?

It is unclear whether hoarding is due to heredity or environment. But half of the people who hoard have a family member who hoards. And there is evidence that links compulsive hoarding to a region on chromosome 14—which has also been linked to disorders such as Alzheimer's and other cognitive impairments.

Who Hoards?

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Research shows that the decision-making process of a person who hoards is seriously compromised. Neuroimaging studies have revealed common traits among people who hoard; this includes having severe emotional attachments to inanimate objects and extreme anxiety when making decisions, even simple ones. A person who hoards finds it gut-wrenching to make the decision of tossing a piece of garbage like a plastic bag, for example.

Is hoarding more common in older adults?

Compulsive hoarding is more common in older adults, and it may be more common in men than in women. When compared with adults between the ages of 33 and 44, older people between the ages of 55 and 94 are three times more likely to have this compulsion.

Why are people who hoard often single?

Jamie Feusner at UCLA’s School of Medicine notes that many of these people are single, either because their behavior has driven away those around them or has prevented them from forming meaningful relationships.

How to Help a Person Who Hoards

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Commonly hoarded items can include anything to everything. But whatever it is, the person who hoards assigns value to their items. Such a household can contain objects including paper and plastic bags, cardboard boxes, newspapers, magazines, photographs, household supplies, old food, unused clothing, sports gear, broken appliances. Just about anything can be stockpiled.

How does hoarding affect others and children?

The person who hoards also impacts the lives of the people around them. A house can, in fact, become so compromised that it turns into a clear fire hazard or toxic waste site. People with severe hoarding may even find child services and law enforcement at their door.

Can you cure hoarding?

This disorder is hard to treat. While medication does not appear to reduce the behavior, it may help to reduce symptoms. Medications that treat conditions like depression and anxiety are helpful in about a third of cases. Therapy can help. Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College and the father of hoarding psychology, along with colleagues, came up with a cognitive-behavioral approach for hoarders. He includes in this therapy: Ask the person who hoards to try throwing away an item as an experiment. Not as a broad policy, but as a small trial. Then the therapist monitors how the sufferer progresses.

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