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What is Hoarding?

Imagine this situation- a yard and a home cluttered with bales of old clothes, piles of yellowed newspapers, stacks of books, overflowing dishes, and containers, decaying garbage and scores of material objects that do not serve any aesthetic or functional purpose.

It is very easy for one to identify with the above scenario. At one point or another in the normal existence of an individual; it is extremely common for an individual to store a collection of items that may not necessarily be beneficial or useful. Human beings are naturally attuned to storing and accumulating things. In fact, the compulsion for human beings to hold on to items relates to our innate instincts to hunt and accumulate.

What is a hoarding disorder?

Compulsive hoarding is an anxiety disorder that involves a lot more than holding on to a few extra newspapers and magazines. Individuals that store an excess of items may be loosely classified as packrats of clatterers, however, when the situation is dire and compulsive, it can rightly be classified as a hoarding disorder.

Hoarding encompasses all of the following:

  • When an individual collects and holds on to an excess of items; even items that may be of little to no value.

  • When the items that have accumulated create clutter in the home or living space of an individual. The clutter often makes it difficult for a person to use their living space as it was intended.

Today, hoarding is classified as a distinct psychological and mental health problem with its own sets of characteristics rather than exclusively an element of obsessive-compulsive disorder or as a lifestyle choice. Although debates exist regarding the legitimacy of classifying hoarding as a DSM-5 disorder, this distinction has created a platform for greater research into the disorder. In future, this will help to improve our understanding of the problem as well as figure out ways to better help those that are struggling with the mental issue.

The relationship between human beings and things explained

As a behavior, hoarding is not an issue that is exclusive to human beings. However, no other species has the compulsion and the capacity to hoard like a human being does. People develop attachments to things out of sentiment or out of what the objects represent symbolically. Young children develop intense relationships and form attachments to specific objects such as toys. In many cases, the attachment to specific objects fades as an adolescent begin to lose or gain interest in other things.

However, after adolescence, possessions begin to provide an opportunity that allows one to gain independence from the parents, which is where we begin to observe possessions as a reflection of who we are. This feeling continues throughout adulthood, where we develop relationships with things that we have acquired during our lifespan.

As we age, our possessions begin to take on an increased role in our lives; as a source of comfort and a way to reminisce the yesteryears. Mostly, this feeling is healthy and is in line with the process of human aging.

Differences between hoarding and collecting

Hoarding is wildly different from collecting, in that, collecting is a normal adaptive process that is a common and accepted feature of everyday life. The factors that characterize collection include:

  1. A genuine interest that leads one to search, select and store specific items.

  2. A systematic way of collecting the items.

  3. The items collected must be confined to a specific area or genre.

  4. Typically, collectors are well informed about the objects they collect, which means that they have all the facts at their fingertips regarding the objects.

  5. Collections take time. As such, this is a reasonably long term behavior

Collectors are also more likely to show a willingness to share or brag about their collection. As a matter of fact, collectors of similar items are known to swap or trade items that are missing from their collection. In contrast, hoarders are more interested in retaining and acquiring rather than sharing their interest with other people around them. Most hoarders can live with their problem for years without letting on that there is a serious issue with them.

In many cases, it can be difficult to differentiate between a hoarder and a collector. A person that has been described as a hoarder typically tends to hold their identity as a collector in very high esteem. In such a case, even when the individual shows classic signs of hoarding, they may not necessarily see themselves as individuals with a hoarding problem. Because of this, it is advised that you avoid referring to anyone as a hoarder unless their condition has been diagnosed by a medical professional. For some people, the acquisition of items or the process of collecting simply spirals out of control- this is not hoarding.

What are the signs that someone is a compulsive hoarder?

A person is classified as a hoarder when they have:

  1. A hard time getting rid of objects

  2. A significant amount of clutter at home, office, cars, storage units or any other spaces. The clutter has to be significant enough that it prevents you from storing other items or moving around easily.

  3. A feeling of anxiety about getting rid of items or giving them away.

  4. An overwhelming feeling that your things and possessions have taken over your life.

  5. The inability to stop buying new items, even when you do not need them or the inability to stop taking free items such as flyers, ketchup and salt packets.

  6. The need to keep buying things that are on offer just to stock up.

  7. The incapacity to have people over to your household owing to shame or embarrassment at the state of things.

  8. The refusal to socialize with others, (even repairmen) at the household.

Why is it hard for hoarders to get rid of objects?

Hoarders tend to have unusually strong feelings of joy and euphoria at the prospect of getting new things. They also experience strong negative feelings such as guilt, fear, and anger at the realization that they might have to let go of some items. When hoarding has turned into a compulsion, it causes the development of feelings of denial, even when the clutter is seemingly a danger and an issue of concern.

At this stage of compulsive hoarding, a plan must be developed and executed to help the person suffering from the disorder. Treatment for hoarding may include incorporating certain strategies that may help the sufferer live with the condition such as support groups. In some cases, psychological counseling and therapy may be necessary as well.

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