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Hoarding disorder: When saving spirals out of control

April 14, 2018—It's normal to be a bit of a pack rat. Many of us hold on to stuff we really should toss.

But some people—those with hoarding disorder—find it so hard to part with their possessions that clutter makes bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens unusable. This can become a health and fire hazard. And it can severely strain relationships.

If you know a hoarder, it may help to know that no one chooses to become one. Hoarders aren't just being messy. They have a real mental health problem that affects their decision-making ability and can make discarding things emotionally painful. This condition affects 2 to 6 percent of the population, the American Psychiatric Association reports.

The cause is still a mystery

Hoarding disorder may start in adolescence and grow worse over the decades. What causes it is still unknown. But research shows that the brain activity of people with hoarding disorder and those without it is different.

Hoarding is more common in older adults, and it may affect males more than females. And many hoarders have a tendency toward indecisiveness, perfectionism and procrastination.

Help for hoarding

Some hoarders may recognize that their saving is out of control. But others may see no problem at all with all the clutter overtaking their homes.

Help is available. For some people, medications improve symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of counseling that helps people change their thinking, can help hoarders learn to part with unneeded belongings. And joining a support group can be helpful for some.

Reach out

Tell your doctor if there's any chance you might have this disorder. And if someone you care for appears to be a hoarder who needs help? Be gentle in your approach. Arguing about clutter is only likely to make hoarders hold more tightly to their belongings. Instead, try to calmly explain why you're troubled. For example, you might say, "I'm worried that you could fall and get hurt" or "I'm concerned there's no room to cook anymore."

Then offer to get help—for instance, by helping to find a therapist who specializes in hoarding. And be patient: It may take several tries before your family member or friend is ready to listen.

Learn about the warning signs of mental illness.

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