One of the hallmarks of hoarding disorder is the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of whether they are perceived by others to have value or not. This difficulty is due to strong urges to save items, and/or distress associated with discarding.
But what are some of the reasons why discarding is so difficult for people who struggle with hoarding? Here are 6 factors that account for this:
1. Emotional attachment
People with hoarding disorder often have a deep, complicated relationship with their belongings and if they have to part with them they feel like they're losing a friend. They also feel that if they get rid of items that they're throwing away a part of themselves. They see things as reminders of cherished people and memories and fear that if they discard these things they'll forget the person/experience.
2. Unhealthy beliefs about possessions
Often times people with hoarding feel responsible for the well-being of their possessions. It's like they assign human feelings and characteristics to their items and feel they are the only ones who can save these things. This is called anthropomorphism. Having these kinds of feelings towards inanimate objects produces an unhealthy relationship with one's belongings and makes it that much harder to let go.
3. Inherited poor decision making
Hoarding disorder is known to be inherited. Studies have shown that there is a genetic link involving chromosome 14. Now the severity of the disorder differs between generations, but one thing that is inherited is indecisiveness. Being unable to definitively make decisions on what to keep and what to toss is extremely difficult for this population. Their decision-making skills are extremely poor and we've all heard the expression that clutter is just postponed decisions.
4. Weak brain signals
There are specific regions in the brain that help us select which stimuli are deserving of our attention. This is called the salience network. In people who hoard, this network is faulty as their network signals that everything is worthy of our attention and importance. This makes it extremely difficult to determine important things (water bill) versus unimportant things (junk mail), so in essence, they keep everything (piles of mail for months!).
5. Cognitive deficits
Higher order decision making and cognitive functioning are impaired with people with hoarding disorder. They lack the skills to be able to prioritize, categorize, organize and be able to see the larger picture. They often have problems with attention, being easily distracted and can have memory deficits
6. The avoidance factor
Some people say that "Avoidance is the compulsion of hoarding." They avoid doing anything as it relates to their stuff. Avoiding is easier than making the tough decisions about what to do first, where to put things, what should stay, what should go, etc. Sometimes it's physically intolerable to have to face getting rid of something. They can start to feel anxious, sweaty and have difficulty breathing. Facing their stuff can bring up feelings of grief, loss, sadness, anger, and frustration and so it's better to just avoid it altogether.
Looking at these six factors one can see why, for a person with hoarding disorder, making a seemingly simple decision is extremely difficult. It's not that they don't want to make decisions about their clutter, it's just that it can be physically and mentally challenging to do so.
Have you come up against some of these issues when trying to help someone who hoards? Please share in the comments.