One in 40 people in the United States has a hoarding disorder. A new treatment could help.

Most of us have at least a few valuable possessions that we would find it hard to part with. But those with hoarding disorder, about 1 in 40 people in the U.S., are forced to hold on to most of their belongings, even if it means living in a very cluttered environment that reduces their quality of life and compromises their safety due to increased risk of fire, mold or mildew. rodent infestation or personal injury.

“The branches have even died from objects in their homes collapsing on them,” says Brad Schmidt, a distinguished professor of psychology at Florida State University.

While there are few established treatments for hoarding, experts say new treatments are needed. Now, researchers at Stanford University are investigating a new strategy that uses virtual reality technology to help hoarders experience the sensation and benefits of pollution.

“This is the first study that allows patients with hoarding disorder to practice letting go of valued objects while simulating their own home,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. research.

The first study of its kind

A recent pilot study that was published Journal of Psychiatric Research, shows that therapy using a virtual reality headset and hand-held controllers can help hoarders practice giving up their possessions in a home simulation before emptying the space in real life.

“We know that at the heart of hoarding disorder is attachment to objects and letting go, so practicing that is one of the treatments included in this study,” says Rodriguez.

The study lasted 16 weeks, and all participants diagnosed with hoarding disorder entered their virtual home models to practice sorting and getting rid of items they felt attached to. The virtual layout of their home and possessions was created from images uploaded to the 3D simulation, so each participant knew and appreciated the objects before they practiced throwing them.

Rodriguez says that “78 percent of participants stated that virtual reality helped them increase their real-life discard.”

Such results are promising, especially considering that the participants in the study ranged from 60 to 73 years old, in the group where hoarding is most common.

Although about 2.6 percent of the general population generally struggles with the disorder, its prevalence is known to be “as high as 6 percent” in older individuals, says Randy Frost, professor emeritus of psychology at Smith College and co-author of the book. Things: Mandatory hoarding and the importance of things.

Based on previous research

The Stanford study builds on work published in 2020 at the University of Chicago that showed that individuals struggling with hoarding disorder were motivated to clean environments by using virtual reality to explore a representation of a cluttered home. removed.

However, the Stanford study is unique in that it targeted older adults and allowed participants to engage in this cleaning process, a crucial step in emotionally detaching from each object.

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

The technology could also be useful in connecting hoarding disorder patients with mental health professionals in more hands-on ways. For example, many existing hoarding treatment protocols include home visits by a therapist to motivate and help the patient to throw away.

Such assistance is often impossible, however, due to travel restrictions for therapists or patient reticence to allow others into their homes,” Frost explains. “Virtual therapy removes these difficulties and is a significant step forward in our ability to treat this difficult disease. “

A debilitating disorder

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

“Brain disorder is much more common than ever thought,” says Frost. One reason it remained under-recognized for so long was “the tendency of those struggling with hoarding to be reluctant to seek treatment,” says Marla Deibler, a Princeton, New Jersey-based clinical psychologist who specializes in hoarding. Such individuals may feel embarrassed by the behavior, and some may not realize they have a problem until family members intervene.

“Those who don’t believe they have a hoarding problem may not experience anxiety, but those who live with or near them likely do,” says Gail Steketee, dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work and co-author of the paper. Collection: What everyone needs to know.

One sign that the accumulation of things has become a problem is when it starts to interfere with life or prevent the use of rooms for their intended purpose. For example, piles of goods on the kitchen counters, which prevent the preparation of a hygienic meal, or objects piled on beds or bedrooms, which reduce the quality of sleep.

“Degradation can also mean problems in relationships, such as a wife leaving her husband because she can no longer live in his mess,” adds Chasson.

Where to get help

Although virtual reality devices are still in the research phase, the good news is that there are other treatment options for people struggling with hoarding.

One of the most researched and proven treatments for hoarding is cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy in which the therapist follows certain practices to show the patient how they can improve their control over their impulses, thoughts, and behaviors.

“CBT treatment for hoarding is not easy, but with a skilled therapist who keeps the patient motivated, you can make a big difference in their life,” says Schmidt.

There are also other forms of talk therapy and highly structured workshops for hoarding disorders that experts say have also been shown to be effective.

Preventive measures, such as controlling the items brought into the home, can also be helpful. “Studies have shown that when possessions enter the home of someone with hoarding disorder, they are rarely used,” says Frost. The hoarder’s family members can help prevent more items from entering the home and help the person declutter their living space when it has accumulated to the point where it becomes a problem.

Additional tips, resources, and the names of treatment professionals specializing in hoarding disorder can be found on the website of the International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center. For an individual struggling with hoarding, “practice patience and self-compassion,” Deibler advises. “Know that you are not alone and there is help.”

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