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Managing hoarding obsession

 | November 3, 2013

If your possessions start clustering your life style and living conditions – you may have become a hoarder.


Kathleen was arguing with her mum in the kitchen. She was trying to spring clean the kitchen and throw out unwanted plastic bags, wares and old utensils. Her mum was on the war path and against her sorting of unwanted things and kept putting some of them back into the drawers.

She was busy scolding Kathleen for trying to get rid of her ‘valuable’ things in the kitchen.

Kathleen is now near the end of her tolerance tether because she just cannot convince her mum to release and let go of all the unnecessary things she has stored in her kitchen drawers and cabinet.

Rats and cockroaches have already found their way into the storage and the kitchen now had an unhealthy old musty smell.

Her mother insists that the kitchen is fine and that Kathleen is being paranoid and interfering. She accuses Kathleen of wanting to get rid of ‘good things’ that she has collected over years .

Have you known or been to such a person’s home or perhaps it’s your kitchen that is being described above?

Have you opened a drawer and noticed it stuffed with plastic bags and all kinds of junk? You open another drawer and it too is filled to the brim, with similar junk.

As you keep opening drawer after drawer, the sight of unorganised storage mess greets you. On impulse your thoughts are – “ a heck of a messy person lives here!”

But it’s far from being a messy person. This person is a Hoarder.

Life, a collection of junk

It was long unknown and only recently came to light with the American documentary “Hoarders” showing the extent that people will keep and hoard all sorts of things.

Apart from taking up storage space, keeping items that have long outlived their expiry and value dates, hoarding can also create health and fire risks.

Its a sight that would make any interior decorator scream hell at what they see in a hoarder’s home and office.

Compulsive hoarding, pathological collecting or more informally known as pack-ratting, is a behavior pattern characterised by excessive acquisition and the inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that cover living areas of the home and causes significant distress or impairment.

When I was working in a bank many years ago, I attended a course called “Practicing Wastepaper Basketry” and it was an amazing eye opener as to how much unused and redundant information and accumulation we do in our lives.

It’s a great golden rule and always healthy to discard what you don’t use or need over a specified time interval.

Simple actions like hoarding your email inbox with 2000 old emails or still having your 20 year old clothes in your closet in the hopes that you can still fit into it, someday.

Keeping that old rusting car covered with plastic sheets on your front porch saying that it can still run someday, puts you in the category of a potential hoarder.

We are all hoarders

Everyone is a hoarder in some way or another, we have all stored something we never need or use, somewhere. It’s a natural human condition to put value and act possessive towards something that we term as sentimental, valuable or just because we ‘love’ the item.

Nothing wrong with that, but when this hoarding condition goes overboard and begins to defy logic then there is a clear display that the ‘collector’ is becoming a beaver – piling up junk sky high and never letting go.

That’s when the hoarder starts to attract attention.

Compulsive hoarding behavior is always associated with health risks, impaired functioning, economic burden, and has adverse effects on friends and family members.

Hoarding has its links to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and share many similar symptoms.

When clinically significant enough to impair functioning, hoarding can prevent typical use of space so as to limit activities such as cooking, cleaning, movement through the house, and sleeping.

It can also cause danger putting the individual or others at risk of fire, falling, poor sanitation, and other health concerns.

Researchers only recently began to study hoarding. It is not clear whether “compulsive” hoarding is a symptom of another condition, such as OCD.

However it is a growing concern, as the condition typically manifests itself in childhood with symptoms escalating later in life when collected items have grown excessive and family members who would otherwise help to maintain and control the levels of clutter have either died or moved away. I remember my aunt would never remove or give away her parents’ household items – eventhough the utensils had rusted.

Hoarding affects emotions, thoughts and behavior. Signs and symptoms of hoarding may include:

  • Cluttered living spaces – where basic living activities and movement are obstructed.
  • Inability to discard items – old and outdated items are still around.
  • Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail – yellow, moldy and ugly stacks kept all over the home.
  • Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything.
  • Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, including trash or napkins from a restaurant.
  • Difficulty in managing daily activities, including procrastinating and having trouble to make decisions.
  • Difficulty in organising items.
  • Shame or embarrassment.
  • Excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort in allowing others to touch or borrow items.
  • Limited or no social interaction.

Typically, hoarders save items because they believe these items will be needed or have restored value in the future.

A person may also hoard items that he or she feels have an important emotional significance — serving as a reminder of happier times, for example, or representing beloved people or pets. People who hoard may report feeling safer when surrounded by the things they have saved.

It is important to note that hoarding is different from collecting.

People who have collections, such as stamps or model cars, deliberately search out specific items for their collections. Collectors often categorise their items and will carefully display them. Hoarders, on the other hand, will save random items they encounter in their daily life and store them haphazardly in their homes or surrounding areas.

Recognise the hoarder

Hoarding appears to be more common in people with psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders. Other factors often associated with hoarders include alcohol dependence as well as paranoia, schizotypal, and avoidant traits.

Some risk factors and features about hoarders:

Age. Hoarding usually starts in early adolescence and tends to get worse with age. Hoarding may even start earlier than the teen years. Younger children may start saving items, such as broken toys, pencil stubs, outdated school papers and broken appliances.

Family history. There is a very strong association between having a family member who is a compulsive hoarder and becoming a hoarder yourself.

Stressful life events. Some people develop hoarding traits after experiencing a stressful life event that they had difficulty coping with, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, eviction or losing possessions in a disaster like fire

A history of alcohol abuse. About half of hoarders have a history of alcohol dependence. Alcohol is a depressant and affects critical thinking and decision making.

Social isolation. People who hoard are typically socially withdrawn and isolated. In many cases, the hoarding leads to social isolation. On the other hand, some people may turn to the comforts of hoarding because they’re lonely and having all those things keep them sentimental with their past.

Family histories show strong positive correlations. My personal observation with Hoarders and OCD clients is an underlying lack of self confidence that constantly fuels the symptoms.

When addressing a hoarder’s case, a significant link between hoarding and interference in occupational and social functioning must be determined. Hoarding behavior is often so severe and complex due to the poor insight of hoarding patients in that they do not recognize it as a problem.

Without this insight, it is much harder for behavioral therapy such as counseling, hypnotherapy and life coaching to be key for the successful treatment of compulsive hoarders.

It’s important that the therapist establish the key reason as to why the hoarder has come for therapy. There are results found that hoarders themselves were significantly less likely to see a problem in a hoarding situation than a friend or a relative might.

Often, when I am interviewed by the media about OCD, the question always pops up – whether hoarders are sufferers of OCD?

There are certain traits of obsessive nature in hoarders but OCD sufferers are more concerned with cleanliness, constant checking, fears and repetitive behavioral actions.

Is there a significant difference in OCD and Hoarders? Yes, there is. Hoarders have no insight and do not recognize their problem while patients of OCD symptoms are often very aware of their disorder. This is not denial but rather they just cannot see that the mess they create in hoarding as abnormal.

Hoarding – symptoms

To the onlooker, this behavior can be quite comical and quite nonsensical. But hoarder sufferers are powerless to stop their compulsive behavior, and may have elaborate “deprivation” as to how they must have all their things around.

They are quite stubborn about letting go of anything and they always have a reason as to why the item is still valuable to them. Unlike OCD compulsions, hoarding symptoms does not give the sufferer discomfort, but only a measure of assurance that their things are intact in their home or office.

Hoarders can be angry, rude and demanding when their things are taken away. They are bold and will show resentment against removal of their things which they claim is an organized mess or has always been the manner in their home.

This is a good indication, from a hypnotic viewpoint that Hoarding is fuelled by some hidden trauma or conditioned memory.

The mind is filled with thoughts: “They don’t understand the value of that item.”, “It is not there when I need it.” or “ I am still using it.”

This thought is often fed from some subconscious connection of a past event in life. As an example, the person may have been told something when they were a child. “You must treasure all that you own and not let anyone take it away from you” or “Money is hard to come by, so don’t waste it on buying new things. Keep your old things”.

Because of this, an emotional and conditional attachment develops and it becomes deep rooted in the subconscious mind. It does not matter if there is any basis or actual fact that supports the reason. Due to lack of real life experiences to test the statement, the thought is accepted as factual. Thus hoarders subconsciously see their mess as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ in real life.

Hoarding can be in a common form that you may not even be aware of its presence. Hoarding is sometimes accompanied by depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, attention deficit disorder and many other anxiety disorders.

This is because hoarding compulsion creates behavior that changes and inhibits their life style and quality of life in the long run. Dealing and living on a daily basis with someone with severe hoarding symptoms can inflict extreme strain on families and relationships, so it is important to work with them as well as the sufferer.

Sensitivity is important, because sometimes these rituals are the only way the person has to communicate. When dealing with a hoarder, it’s important to take a stand and explain that the person needs to seek self help to empower them to start disassociation with their material possessions.

It’s easier said than done, but this must be the starting point for a turnaround solution. The therapist and the patients’ family members must work together with a hybrid solution of therapy, strategies and enforcement to curb the hoarding habit.

Hypnotherapy treatment – one option

Treatment options for hoarding are widely varied, and each has specific results.

Medication is effective but sometimes only masks the problem. It does nothing to address the underlying root cause which resides at the subconscious level.

There are a number of therapies that are useful and cognitive behavioral psychologists have the longest track record. Group therapy led by an experienced facilitator is also effective.

Hypnotherapy with confident coaching techniques can greatly assist hoarding sufferers because it quickly gets to the root of the obsession and helps to reframe it.

It is also useful in helping the individuals disassociate their obsession and dependence on the things they possess. Just like OCD, hoarding is a deep rooted emotional attachment which subconsciously ensures that a sense of deprivation is experienced if their things are removed.

Hypnosis deals directly with the subconscious mind. If root causes are unknown at a conscious level then hypnotic techniques known as regression can be very helpful in identifying any past events that triggered the Hoarding to escalate.

Once the cause is identified, hypnosis becomes a powerful tool to set things right. Repetition is the mother of all skills and repeated suggestion through hypnosis is effective to coax the subconscious to rid itself of this behavior.

In order to identify the underlying cause of the hoarder’s disorder, I normally suggest that they be regressed under hypnosis back to a single trauma that is the primary root cause.

A few sessions is required in order to teach the unconscious mind on how to change and overcome the hoarding obsession.

Testing is also an important process. I normally test these changes by taking the patients through a process of disassociation where we remove or clean out some areas of their home and office.

While hoarding is essentially defined as an association disorder or often a type of OCD, it can be treated with hypnotherapy combined with effective housekeeping and dis-association for good results.

Julian Leicester is a London trained subconscious specialist with Hypno-Station. He is Malaysia’s most renowned clinical hypnotherapist, media personality, columnist, event host and book author. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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