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Why Your Clutter Is Killing You and What to Do About It

Understanding hoarding and how to beat it

Whether you're a clutterbug, packrat, or have a full blown Hoarding Disorder, your collection of stuff could be amping up your nervous system and keeping you in a constant state of stress. And I need not tell you about the physically and mentally corrosive effects of chronic stress, right?

Even if you convince yourself that your clutter (more often unsightly mounds, piles, boxes and bags of junk) is personally harmless, usually a clutterer's spouse and other family members suffer the ill effects of disarray, disorganization, and mess. In fact, sadly, I have seen basically good marriages implode under the emotionally crushing weight of unmanageable amounts of unnecessary stuff.

Consider the parallel of an unpleasant drone. If the disagreeable noise is mostly steady, people usually adapt to it and it doesn't always bother them on a conscious level. But when the steady, noxious sound suddenly stops (e.g., the refrigerator compressor turns off, the HVAC system cycles off, or the sound of lawn care equipment ceases), a palpable sense of relief, peace and quiet is dramatically experienced.

Similarly, people become revved up by and eventually inured to visual chaos, too. And when people are in aesthetically pleasing, organized and uncluttered surroundings, they also feel more relaxed, at peace and calmer.

The reason annoying sound and visual "noise" are psycho-noxious is believed to be based on neurobiology and evolution. If your auditory sense is bombarded by a steady (mostly unnatural) sound, it activates parts of the nervous system that were evolutionarily adaptive for auditory discrimination. In simple terms, that's the ability to separate sounds and know what they are and where they're coming from.

Indeed, thousands of years ago, our ancestors needed to distinguish between safe sounds (e.g., activity and conversation in the village, nonthreatening wildlife, etc.) and potentially dangerous ones (e.g., approaching combatants and/or predatory animals, etc.). Obviously, if a person was unable to clearly recognize the sounds of potential threats, he or she was at a distinct disadvantage.

Thus, the constant din of droning noise seems to cause arousal in the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system which, in turn, raises one's baseline of anxiety. Even if it's subtle, and not consciously annoying, the very fact that a stimulus is impinging on one's nervous system (the auditory processing system, in this case) causes neural stimulation and emotional activation. (See footnote below on "white noise.")

Similarly, our Pleistocene predecessors most likely lived in environments that were visually uncomplicated. That is, there were not a lot rapidly changing environmental features, and people's visual field was uncluttered thus giving them a far and clear view of their surroundings and the ability to rapidly detect threats and dangers. In other words, their world was not usually full of clutter or "visual noise" and, consequently, their nervous systems were not required to constantly process and react to a huge array of visual stimuli.

Just as we feel relief when a noise we've habituated to stops (because our nervous system can throttle down), when a person has visually "quieted" his or her living space, a similar reduction of fight-or-flight arousal occurs. Of course, stopping a noise is quick and easy. Uncluttering and organizing one's living space is neither quick nor easy. But the benefits of doing so are tremendous!

In essence, "packrats," "collectors," "clutterbugs" or hoarders collect unessential things to an excessive and sometimes immobilizing degree. In simplest terms, as is the case with OCD, the basis for their hoarding is usually rooted in fear and uncertainty (i.e., "I can't get rid of that! What if I need it at some point?"). What's more, they grossly overestimate the value of stuff and hugely underestimate the cost of keeping it.

A person with OCD will feel compelled to do rituals in response to irrational anxiety. Similarly, a hoarder will feel compelled to obtain and keep myriad items because the thought of not getting, or discarding, them evokes high anxiety that is relived by getting and keeping the item(s).

As is the case with most anxieties, the treatment of choice for hoarding is CBT with a strong emphasis on exposure therapy. Thus the hoarder (just like someone with OCD or a phobia), must face his or her fears and experience the anxiety it causes until it subsides without escaping it.

So, just like a person with OCD must confront his or her anxiety triggers instead of avoiding them, a hoarder needs to confront the anxiety of not collecting and/or discarding stuff rather than getting and hanging onto it.

It's also important to note that in addition to the anxiety a hoarder will experience during therapy, he or she will also be likely to get in touch with other strong feelings like shame, guilt, anger, emptiness, and disgust (to name only a few). Therefore, journaling thoughts that come up during exposure therapy can be additionally helpful by shedding light on some of the associated thoughts that create pain or prevent progress.

Ultimately, beating hoarding is a win-win. The hoarder gets to free him or herself from the humongous "ball and chain" of ugly, often embarrassing, psycho-noxious clutter or junk that is literally obstructing his or her life. And family members also benefit because they, too, are freed from the stressful effects of living in a visually "deafening" environment.

Of course, this is just a mere peek through a tiny keyhole into the territory of understanding why beating hoarding is important, and the foundation of how it's done.

For more on how to beat OCD (and by extension Hoarding Disorder) without drugs, check out this post.

As a closing thought for this post, consider that storage (or piles of stuff) is where we put things we don't need that we will never use again.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus,. Ph.D.

Footnote: Some people might wonder about so called "white noise" like that emitted by a machine to mask or drown out auditory intrusions. While certainly better than random, distracting or disturbing sounds, white noise nevertheless is not as nervous system neutral as quiet or silence. This isn't to say that people always do best in totally silent environments. Obviously that's absurd. But when people are assailed by too much noise, emotional distress often results.

Dear Reader,

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This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.