Hoarding: A Co-Occurring Disorder

Is it hard for you to throw anything away? Do you find yourself clinging on to old birthday cards, ticket stubs, trinkets, newspapers and magazines, and even trash? Do you have piles of what most people would call “junk” teetering in your house? Are you unable to use your living room, dining room, or kitchen because they are so cluttered?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have compulsive hoarding syndrome. This disorder is defined as the acquisition of and failure to discard items that appear to be useless or of limited value that results in impairment in functioning. Other symptoms of this disorder are indecisiveness, avoidance, and procrastination.

The risks of compulsive hoarding don’t just affected the afflicted person; hoarders have a strong influence on their immediate environment, including friends, pets, and family members. When a place is cluttered, safety hazards arise. Objects on the floor can be falling or tripping hazards; piles can fall over and cause serious injury; and emergency escape routes can be blocked.

A cluttered, chaotic home can also lead to serious tensions within the family. For example, when functional living spaces become unusable, the family’s eating habits and routines are affected. If a person is embarrassed by the state of his or her home, it affects the availability of the home for family functions and events. Marriages can become destroyed over the mess and children may run away from home to avoid the chaos.

In addition, hoarding creates are many sanitation issues. Aside from it being nearly impossible to clean a cluttered area thoroughly, areas like this easily become a nesting place for rats, spiders, cockroaches, and even snakes.

Compulsive hoarding was only recently identified as a mental disorder. According to Dr. James Abelson, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Health System, “Hoarders succumb to forces within their brains such that the overflowing garbage in their homes isn’t seen or isn’t experienced as distressing. Whatever they see in terms of clutter doesn’t seem to matter to them. What matters is the fact that these things have importance to them and the loss of these things would trigger distress.”

Like other obsessive-compulsive disorders, hoarding can be treated through cognitive behavioral therapy. Group behavioral treatments include hands-on exercises of sorting and discarding, and patients are trained to resist acquiring new items. Patients are also given homework—simple tasks like cooking, clearing the kitchen, and emptying the trashcan that help patients get used to the act of cleaning and discarding. It can also be helpful to participate in hobbies that do not involve hoarding like exercising, gardening, or dancing.

Source: Battling for Health, Compulsive hoarding: when collection becomes an addiction, June 4, 2009

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