1 in 40 people in the US has a hoarding disorder. A new treatment can help.

Most of us have at least a few valuable possessions that we would have a hard time letting go of. But those with hoarding disorders, about 1 in 40 people in the United States, are forced to hold on to most of their possessions, even if doing so means overwhelming clutter that lowers their quality of life and endangering their safety by increasing the risk of fire, mold or rodent infestation, or personal injury.

“Hoarders die even from things in their homes that fall on them,” said Brad Schmidt, a distinguished professor of research psychology at Florida State University.

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

“This is the first study that allows patients with hoarding disorder to practice letting go of valuables while in a simulation of their own homes,” said Carolyn Rodriguez, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. of Medicine and the lead author on the study.

A first-of-its-kind study

The recent pilot study, published in Journal of Psychiatric Research, shows that therapy powered by a virtual reality headset and handheld controllers can help hoarders practice getting rid of their possessions using a simulation of their home before they declutter the space in real life.

“We know that the core of hoarding disorder involves an attachment to items and difficulty letting go, so training to do this is one of the treatments embedded in this research,” Rodriguez said.

The study was conducted over 16 weeks and allowed its participants, all diagnosed with hoarding disorder, to enter virtual models of their homes to practice sorting and discarding items. which they think is attached. The virtual layout of their home and possessions was created using photos uploaded to create a 3D simulation, so the items were known and valued by each participant before they practiced disposing of them.

Rodriguez noted that “78 percent of participants noted that virtual reality helped them increase real-life discarding.”

Such results are promising, especially when considering that the participants of the study were aged from 60 to 73 years old the group in which storage is most common.

While about 2.6 percent of the general population struggles with the disorder, its prevalence is known to be “as high as 6 percent” among older individuals, said Randy Frost, a Smith College psychology professor and a co- author of the book. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Stuff.

Building on previous research

The Stanford study builds on work done at the University of Chicago published in 2020, which showed that individuals struggling with hoarding disorder were motivated to have a clean environment by using virtual reality to discover a rendering of their home where the clutter has been removed.

The Stanford research was unique, however, because it targeted adults and allowed participants to contribute to the cleaning process that is an important step in emotionally separating themselves from each item.

“We need creative tools for helping people with retention because they are often hesitant to seek or stay in treatment for anxiety,” said Gregory Chasson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago and lead author of the 2020 study. This new Stanford research, he says, offers promising results for one such creative tool: virtual reality.”

Technology can also be useful in connecting hoarding disorder patients with mental health professionals in more practical ways. For example, many existing hoarding treatment protocols include home visits from a therapist who provides the patient with motivation and assistance with disposal.

Such assistance is often impossible though due to therapists’ travel restrictions or reluctance on the part of patients to allow others into their home,” explains Frost. “Virtual treatment eliminates difficulties and represents a significant advance in our ability to treat this difficult disease. “

A debilitating illness

Hoarding disorder is an under-diagnosed and under-treated condition that was only accepted as a true psychiatric disorder in 2013.

“Storage disorder is more common than once thought,” says Frost. One reason it went unrecognized for so long is “a tendency of those struggling with hoarding disorder to be reluctant to seek treatment,” says Marla Deibler, a Princeton, New Jersey-based clinical psychologist who specializes in hoarding. in the treatment of hoarding disorder. Such individuals may feel ashamed of the behavior, and some do not recognize that they have a problem until family members become involved.

“Those who don’t believe they have a hoarding problem may not experience anxiety, but those who live with or near them probably do,” says Gail Steketee, dean emerita of the school of social work at Boston University and co-author of Storage: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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

“Disability can also mean problems in relationships, like when a husband leaves his wife because she can no longer live with his mess,” adds Chasson.

Where to get help

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

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

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

There are other forms of talk therapy and highly structured workshops for hoarding disorder that experts say have also been proven effective.

Preventative measures such as controlling which items are brought into the home in the first place can also help. “Research has shown that when a possession enters the home of a person with hoarding disorder, it is rarely used,” says Frost. Family members of a hoarder can be instrumental in preventing more items from entering the home and in helping the person declutter their home when it accumulates 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 the individual struggling with hoarding disorder, “practice patience and self-compassion,” Deibler advises. “You know you are not alone and there is help.”


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