1 in 40 people in America has hoarding disorder. A new treatment may help.

Most of us have at least a few prized possessions that we would find hard to part with. But about 1 in 40 people in the United States suffer from hoarding disorder and have to keep most of their stuff, even if doing so means a severely disorganized environment that reduces their quality of life. and jeopardizes their safety through increased risk of fire, mold or mildew. Rodent infestation, or personal injury.

“Hoarders have even died when items fell into their homes,” says Brad Schmidt, a distinguished research professor of psychology at Florida State University.

Although there are some established treatments available for hoarding disorder, experts say new treatments are needed. Now scientists at Stanford University are exploring a new strategy that uses virtual reality technology to help hoarders experience the sensations and benefits of decluttering.

“This is the first study that allows patients with hoarding disorder to practice giving up valuable items in a simulation of their homes,” says lead author Caroline Rodriguez, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. the study.

first study of its kind

A recent pilot study, published in Psychiatry Research Journal, Turns out that therapy conducted with a virtual reality headset and handheld controller can help hoarders practice giving up their possessions using a simulation of their home before clearing out the space in real life.

“We know that the core of hoarding disorder involves an attachment to items and difficulty giving them up, so practicing doing so is one of the treatments included in this research,” Rodriguez says.

The study was conducted over 16 weeks and allowed all participants suffering from hoarding disorder to enter virtual models of their homes and practice sorting and discarding items they felt attached to. The virtual layout of their home and property was created with photos that were uploaded to create a 3D simulation, so each participant was aware of and evaluated the objects before practicing throwing them out.

Rodriguez says that “78 percent of participants said that virtual reality helped them increase sacrifice in real life.”

Such results are promising, especially when considering that the study participants were between 60 and 73 years old, the group in which hoarding is most common.

While about 2.6 percent of the population typically struggles with the disorder, its prevalence among older individuals is thought to be “as high as 6 percent,” says Randy Frost, professor emeritus of psychology at Smith College and co-author of the book. Contents: Compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things.

building on previous research

The Stanford study is based on work done at the University of Chicago that was published in 2020, which showed that individuals struggling with hoarding disorder could use virtual reality to explore a rendering of their home to keep a clean environment. The disorder that was induced was removed.

However, the Stanford research is unique in that it targeted older adults and allowed participants to contribute to the cleaning process, which was an important step in emotionally detaching oneself from each item.

“We need creative tools to help people who suffer from hoarding because they are often unable to seek or stay in treatment because of the anxiety,” says Gregory Chaisson, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago and lead author of the 2020 study. Hesitate.” , He says this new research from Stanford provides promising results for one such creative tool: virtual reality.”

This technology may also be helpful in connecting hoarding disorder patients with mental health professionals in more practical ways. For example, many current hoarding treatment protocols involve home visits from a therapist who provides the patient with motivation and assistance with quitting.

Frost explains, “Such assistance is often impossible because of travel restrictions on physicians or hesitancy on the part of patients to allow others into their homes.” “Virtual treatment eliminates these difficulties and represents a significant advance in our ability to treat this difficult disorder.”

a debilitating disorder

Hoarding disorder is an underdiagnosed and undertreated condition that was only accepted as a true psychiatric disorder in 2013.

“Hoarding disorder is more common than previously thought,” says Frost. One reason it was underrecognized for so long is that “people struggling with hoarding disorder tend to be reluctant to seek treatment,” says Marla Deibler, a clinical psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey. , who specializes in the treatment of hoarding disorder, says. Such individuals may feel embarrassed by the behavior, and some do not recognize that they have a problem until family members become involved.

“People who don’t believe they have a hoarding problem may not experience distress, but people who live with or near them may,” says co-author Gail Steketee, dean emerita of the School of Social Work at Boston University. Might be in trouble.” Billboards: What Everyone Needs to Know,

In fact, one sign that the accumulation of stuff has become an issue is when it begins to interfere with one’s life or prevent rooms from being used for their intended purpose. For example, piles of items on kitchen countertops, which hinder hygienic food preparation, or piles of items on beds or throughout the bedroom, hindering sleep quality.

“Loss can also mean problems in relationships, such as when a wife leaves her husband because she can no longer put up with his disorganization,” says Chaisson.

Where to get help

While virtual reality tools are still in the research stage, the good news is that individuals struggling with hoarding disorder have other treatment options available.

One of the most studied and proven treatments for hoarding disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy where a therapist follows specific practices to show the patient how to improve control over their impulses, thoughts, and behaviors.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy treatment for hoarding disorder is not easy, but with a skilled therapist to keep the patient motivated, you can make a big difference in their life,” says Schmidt.

Experts say other forms of talk therapy and highly structured workshops have also proven effective for hoarding disorder.

Preventive measures such as controlling which items are brought into the home in the first place may also be helpful. “Research has shown that once an item enters the home of a person with hoarding disorder, it is rarely used,” says Frost. Family members of the hoarder can be helpful in preventing more items from entering the home and helping the person clear clutter from their living space when it has accumulated to the point of becoming a problem.

Additional tips, resources, and names of treatment professionals who specialize in hoarding disorder can be found on the International OCD Foundation Hoarding Center website. For a person struggling with hoarding disorder, “Practice patience and self-compassion,” Deibler advises. “Know that you are not alone and help is available.”

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