We've all seen it. A neighbour's yard absolutely piled high with junk. A family member whose growing stack of old newspapers is overshadowed only by the rest of the seemingly worthless stuff that is crammed into every available space in a cramped house.

Sometimes we laugh and call these people pack rats or joke about their incessant accumulation or saving of things.

But hoarding is not something to laugh about. It is a symptom of compulsion that can indicate serious mental illness and can also destroy people's lives.

Hoarding behaviour results from fear of discarding something that might be needed or fear that getting rid of an item may have negative consequences. Approximately one per cent of the population suffers from this problem.

This is often a specific symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder but can also occur as an accompanying symptom in other disorders such as anorexia nervosa, dementia and some psychotic disorders.

Essentially, hoarders keep large amounts of items that are considered excessive or worthless to the outside world. These individuals save items seen as unnecessary; buy or save excessive items of any kind; and treat all saved items as equally valuable regardless of actual financial, sentimental or functional value.

Often, hoarding exists to such an extent that it is impossible to use furniture, rooms or entire homes because of the space taken up by the piles of saved material. The lack of space then tends to lead to a complete breakdown in the ability to keep a house clean. Resulting infestations of insects, rodents or mold can become serious problems.

What differentiates a compulsive hoarder from simply a cluttered individual are the feelings of anxiety that accompany the hoarding or saving behaviour.

Hoarders experience intense anxiety or distress when attempting to discard or even contemplate getting rid of even small items. In fact, the hoarding behaviour is usually done in order to combat the anxiety produced by questions that arise when considering organizing or discarding any items.

Hoarders tend to be crippled by indecisiveness, perfectionism, procrastination and avoidant behaviour.

Usually, hoarding can be classified as a subtype of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In order for this diagnosis to be made, the hoarding behaviour will cause the sufferer significant distress and disruption to healthy functioning.

Unfortunately, hoarding can destroy interpersonal relationships, ruin housing, disrupt educational or work pursuits and can also seriously affect an individual's finances and health.

As with most mental health conditions, an exact cause has not yet been identified for hoarding, but there appears to be a strong genetic component to this condition. Modeling and conditioning may also play a role in the development of this condition. Symptoms usually develop in early adulthood but can begin in childhood as well.

Compulsive hoarding can be difficult to treat in the best of circumstances, but is especially tricky if there is no willingness to change. Treatment usually involves a combination of techniques including behaviour therapy where patients explore triggers, worrisome thoughts and emotions tied to hoarding behaviour. Exposure therapy is another treatment tool and involves practical help in responding to uncomfortable thoughts and feelings when hoarding behaviour is challenged. Finally, medications used to treat anxiety and OCD can also be helpful.

If hoarding is ruining your life, don't be afraid to seek help. Change is possible to help you get on with leading a happy and healthy life.


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