For people with hoarding disorder, their possessions pose a serious burden, often to the point that clutter prevents them from sitting on their sofa, taking a shower, cooking a meal, or sleeping in their bed. Despite the inconvenience and lack of space, they find it impossible to part with items they don’t need. They are emotionally attached to their possessions.
About 1.2 million Australians – or two to five per cent of the population – meet the formal psychological criteria for hoarding disorder, which is related to obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Possessions as comfort: People who hoard perceive objects to have human-like qualities.
People with the condition experience a high level of anxiety and distress at the idea of throwing away or losing any of their possessions. They live with a level of clutter that prevents them using their home for its intended purpose and this gives them a very poor quality of life.
Clutter increases the risks of injury, medical conditions, and death; for example, between a quarter to a third of Australian residential fire-related deaths are associated with hoarding disorder.
Why do people who hoard become so attached to their possessions?
Many children use certain possessions – like a teddy bear or security blanket – to comfort themselves if their parents are unavailable. By the time we reach adulthood, most people don’t rely on possessions for comfort, or may keep just a small number of ‘treasured objects’ as mementos.
People who hoard may be more prone to ‘anthropomorphism’ – perceiving objects to have human-like qualities. They often also experience interpersonal difficulties, feel insecure in relationships, and believe they are a burden to others. To compensate for unmet social needs, they anthropomorphise objects to feel connected.
Humans have a strong need to be connected physically, socially and psychologically to other humans. Loneliness negatively affects our health and is a risk factor for early death. Understandably, when we feel devalued or unloved, we seek out closeness. For people whose need for connection isn’t met by other humans, objects may serve as a substitute.
Anthropomorphism doesn’t fully meet people’s needs, so they collect more and more objects. Stronger anthropomorphic tendencies are associated with more compulsive buying and greater acquisition of free stuff.
Current treatments teach individuals how to challenge their beliefs about possessions, how to resist ‘acquiring urges’ and how to sort, organise and discard possessions. But this approach helps only about a quarter of people who receive it.
New approaches being trialled by a team at Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury, Macquarie University and UNSW consider social disconnection as a potential cause of hoarding. The pilot program addresses core hoarding problems as well as helping to improve impaired social connections. Helping people feel valued and loved, may help them benefit more from treatment and, in turn, experience a desperately needed improvement in their quality of life.
If you would like treatment for hoarding disorder or want to learn how to help your loved ones who may experience hoarding disorder, please call Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury: (02) 9498 8805.
If you are interested in participating in research at Macquarie University studying the underlying mechanisms of hoarding disorder, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in The Conversation. Associate Professor Jessica Grisham is from UNSW.