It's spring cleaning time! And while that has some people excited to purge their lives of the physcial (and mental) clutter that accumulated over the winter, it has others shaking in their boots. If you're finding yourself completely unable to throw away possessions or have severe anxiety when you try to do so, you might be one of about 19 million Americans that suffer from hoarding disorder.
Experts are calling it an "emerging issue" that's likely to grow with an aging population—because while the first signs often arise in teens, they typically worsen with age, usually after some type of personal crisis, according to the Washington Post. About six percent of Americans suffer from this disorder (which is characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as its own mental illness) and affects twice as many people as those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to the Post. However, the disorder is largely "underdiagnosed and undertreated," Sanjaya Saxena, director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders Program at the UC San Diego health system told the Post. Because while people realize it's a problem, they just don't think of it as a medical disorder rooted in brain abnormalities, she said.
In fact, a 2012 study found that in people with hoarding disorder, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula (regions in the brain associated with emotions and thinking) were under-activated when dealing with other people's possessions, but over-activated when deciding whether to keep or discard their own things. (More and more people are speaking out about all kinds of mental health issues like panic attacks and anxiety, so hopefully hoarding will get the attention it needs too.)
While a huge part of the disorder is the inability to throw things away, it can also be related to compulsive buying (when you absolutely cannot resist a sale), the compulsive collection of free things (like flyers or take-out menus), or the compulsive search for perfect or unique items (which may not appear to others as interesting or valuable, such as an old container), according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. These behaviors can have serious negative effects on your life—emotionally, physically, socially, financially, and even legally. The disorder can pose a danger to your health, too; it's been linked to household falls, obesity, respiratory problems (caused by dust mites and squalor), and poor medication compliance, according to the Post.
If you're suffering from symptoms but have been afraid to get help (or just thought it was something you could work through on your own), this is your wakeup call that it might not just be a bad habit, and might be an issue with your mental health. If you think someone you know might be dealing with this, it could be time to stage an intervention.