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Mind Under Matter: When Hoarding Takes Over

By October 31, 2017November 19th, 2020Blogs, Dr. Jenny Yip

You’ve seen the show Hoarders. You’ve heard about those suffering from hoarding disorder who collect the unthinkable: outdated newspapers, junk mail, sour milk, animals, and even their own urine and feces. You’ve seen the homes of people with hoarding disorder where rooms and objects are filled with clutter rather than being used for their intended purposes. Bathtubs are no longer used for bathing and ovens are no longer used for baking. Instead they’re filled to the brim with stuff.
You might think, there’s no reason for anyone to be collecting all that useless junk. That might be so. However, what about the person who has a hard time tossing out old greeting cards for their sentimental value or who has an expensive collection of Asian antiques? How about the individual who enjoys browsing and bookmarking various webpages on the internet for several hours a day for their informational content?
To identify whether your collecting behavior is a problem – be it information or antiques, it’s important to first recognize that 3 main factors make up hoarding disorder: 1) collecting too many items, 2) difficulty getting rid of items, and 3) problems with organization.

Collecting Too Many Items
Being a shopaholic is not the only way to collect too many items. Those who suffer from hoarding disorder also collect free things (i.e., tons of random information from the world-wide-web). The collection can also involve items with no true value, such as food wrappers, torn ear plugs, used paper napkins, etc.
ifficulty Getting Rid of Items
This is the hallmark of hoarding disorder. Sufferers have a hard time letting go of their stuff whether it be throwing away, donating, recycling, or selling. The reasons for saving items can be to prevent waste, for their informational value, due to an emotional attachment, or because it looks or feels good.
People with hoarding disorder have difficulties with organizational skills that can be associated with categorization and decision-making, information processing, and attention and focus. When attempting to declutter and organize, sufferers may spend hours debating, and move piles of stuff from one area to another without clear categories. The process becomes so time-consuming that they usually avoid it altogether and allow the clutter to build.
While many of us engage in normal collecting behaviors and have the tendency to hold onto items (think about the many homes where the garage is completely filled with anything except for vehicles), a hoarder’s stuff not only takes over an entire living space, it can take over the entire mind. The incessant collecting can take a toll on the hoarder’s time, energy, finances, social activities, and family life. Hoarding disorder just about impairs all areas of life.
Researchers have estimated that 1 to 2 million people in the US alone suffer from hoarding disorder, and it’s not only a mental health condition, it’s a major public health problem. Unfortunately, hoarders tend to deny or minimize their condition and rarely seek help. When sufferers of hoarding disorder do oblige to treatment, it usually occurs at the persistent request of family members or it’s mandated by legal authorities.
Although hoarding disorder treatment is not easy, it can be effective. However, there are very few psychologists, psychiatrists, or other mental health therapists who have expertise in the treatment of hoarding. For hoarding disorder treatment to be beneficial, a specialized cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) approach with an experienced clinician is essential, where the sufferer gains specific skills in organizing, decision-making, categorizing, and discarding. When professional organizers work solo with a hoarder without an expert clinician, relapse often occurs. While clearing out the clutter, it is also important for sufferers to replace the hoarding behaviors with healthier, more purposeful ones to reduce relapse.
As we continue evolving into the future, hoarders in today’s tech world may present very differently from those we have seen in the media. In today’s digital age, it is easy to excessively collect photos, videos, information, and other cherished memories. Because it is all digital, it is also overly easy to save these items onto our phones, tablets, and computers. When we run out of storage, we simply transfer our stuff over to external drives or to the magical cloud. And since the cloud is elusive and external drives are now so tiny, there is no need to get rid of any of it. We keep collecting and storing, and eventually lose track of what’s where because there is just so much digital clutter.
In 10, 20, or even 30 years from now, what’s left is your mind under digital matter. This is what happens when hoarding takes over. To avoid this, try limiting the number of digital items you collect in a day. Limit the time spent on digital devices. When one storage location gets full, delete some items to open up space rather than buying or registering for more space. Ultimately, learn to live more in the present by having tech free moments, hours, days.