“It’s like living in a storage facility” – Symptoms of hoarding and why people do it

by Benjamin Fry

A recent article published in the Guardian discussed how Jasmine Harman’s mother’s obsession with hoarding was having a hugely negative impact on their lives…

In trauma theory we work a great deal to manage the transition in the nervous system and in the body, from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. The difference between these two nervous systems is that the sympathetic nervous system activates our response to threat, and the parasympathetic nervous system regulates our response to being in environments where there are no threats. So when we’re treating people who struggle with making this transition naturally (who we might call ‘dysregulated’) we look to find internal ways to make a person feel like they’re in an environment in which they have, what we would call, resources, because a resource is the opposite of a threat.

When this internal architecture is not in place, people will look to all kinds of external crutches on which to rest their difficulty in regulating their nervous system. Many of us are familiar with the most usual suspects; drink, drugs, sex, gambling, relationships, food etc. However the same dynamic can be manifest in many more weird and wonderful ways.

Hoarding is very often simply a way for a person to gather around them as much as possible of what physically feels like a resource. In this case, every single object in Vasoulla Harman’s home will have an association, a memory, a smell, a relationship; something that feels like security rather than a threat. If you remove all of those objects from around that person all they are left with is the reality of their own dysregulated nervous system, and from that place their only experience in life will be of responding to threat.

So, the reason that they gather all manner of things that makes no sense to anyone else, is that they begin from a place in which they live in an incredibly uncomfortable personal biology. Looking at the bigger picture, in general in our lives all battling behaviour from alcoholism to hoarding can be explained in terms of understanding the individuals difficulty with regulating their nervous system, in the absence of these other interventions or behaviours.

So what this person needs before she’s confronted about removing resources from her home is professional help to expand the resources within her internal psychological architecture. This work can be done with excellent results by a nervous system specialist.

Benjamin Fry works across a range of services and media using personal, professional and scientific expertise to help people to a baggage-free life. A published author, and a past columnist for The Times and Psychologies magazine, Benjamin is a social activist in mental health. He founded Get Stable in 2010 to get effective treatment paid for by the state and his great passion is to bring treatment, which works, to all levels of society and across all severities of conditions.

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