File image: Micheal Lutzky

IT MAY start as innocently as letting piles of clothes gather on a room corner. Then it grows into piling stacks of paperwork, old payslips, newspapers, bags and plastic containers - you just cannot throw it away or give it up.
In extreme cases of hoarding, parts of homes become inaccessible because of the clutter.

But what is hoarding? What is the fine line between it and keeping sentimental objects or souvenirs? And does it have a link to mental health disorders?

According to clinical psychologist Shai Friedland, hoarding disorder is classified in the diagnostic and statistic manual under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.

“Hoarding disorder is classified as an individual having constant difficulty discarding or parting with their possessions, regardless of the actual value of the possession.

“This individual struggles due to their need to save or keep this item and due to their distress linked with discarding this item,” he explained. And with the great difficulty in discarding their possessions, comes the accumulation.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), the most commonly hoarded items include newspapers, magazines, paper, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, photographs, household supplies, food and clothing.

Some hoarders even download software they do not need, cramming their computer’s memory.

But, it is a relatively uncommon disorder, with a worldwide prevalence of about 2-5% of the adult population falling into the category.

Friedland said part of the difficulty in determining the exact prevalence is its comorbidity with other mental disorders, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Wilmi Hudsonberg, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics - a generics firm specialising in treatments for depression and anxiety, among others - agreed that clutter played a role in our mental and emotional health.

“There is a significant body of evidence that proves the link between depression and a cluttered environment. One study, conducted by researchers at the Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute, found that when your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter limits your ability to process information,” Hudsonberg said.

“However, if you are suffering from chronic depression, even the most mundane tasks can seem insurmountable, let alone the mammoth task of uncluttering your home or office,” she added.

Friedland explained that, often, people who hoard have a genetic or biological vulnerability to hoarding, or may have learnt from a young age to keep possessions.

“They often misattribute the meaning or value that they assign to certain possessions and their acquiring and saving behaviours are often then reinforced by positive and negative emotions associated with these behaviours. For example, feeling distressed when they need to discard or feeling relieved when they get to keep an item or acquire a new item.”

The good news, however, is that hoarding disorder can be dealt with and a sufferer can get it under control.

Friedland said: “The treatment for hoarding disorder will often be a combination of medication, usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and psychotherapy in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy.”

But Hudsonberg added that getting help from loved ones to initially help clear the clutter while one seeks medical treatment could also help those affected to see the positive effects of clean and open spaces.

“By creating a soothing home and organised work environment, your body automatically releases dopamine, serotonin, melatonin and oxytocin - all the feel-good hormones that heal depression,” she added.

Friedman said the following signs could suggest someone may be a hoarder:

* Compulsive acquiring of goods, an individual not discarding any of their possessions,

* The individual shows great signs of distress when asked to stop acquiring items or to discard items, and

* A person having active living areas cluttered to such a point that such area cannot be used for its intended purposes.

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