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This article is from the WebMD Feature Archive

Harmless collector or compulsive hoarder?

Three questions to help you decide if you've crossed the line into hoarding, and how treatment can help you declutter.

Helping hoarders let go

What can help hoarders let go? Cognitive behavioural therapy, in which they are taught how to change their behaviour, prescription medication or both.

Behavioural therapy focuses on, among other issues, tolerating the urge to acquire without acting on it, Frost says. A hoarder might be taken to do some window shopping - without being allowed to buy anything. Then the patient and therapist go back to the shop and go in, but still do not make a purchase.

Eventually the patient is allowed to go and look at what he wants to buy, but then has to walk away without buying it. The message, Frost says, is not that they should never buy or acquire, but that they must learn to walk away sometimes.

Frost also encourages hoarders to change harmful beliefs about themselves. Slowly he helps them accept that they are not horrible people if they throw away something they no longer need.

In a study Frost and his colleagues found that 26 sessions of behavioural therapy, which included home visits, over a seven-to 12-month period helped half of the 10 hoarders who completed the programme become "much improved" or "very much improved”.

In addition to behavioural therapy, medicine often used for OCD patients can help, Saxena says.

Paula Kotakis participated in therapy and launched an online network, inviting other hoarders to join so they can help each other. Slowly she went through the stacks in her house and cleared up. Her clutter is under control. While some people who have overcome the problem consider themselves "graduated" or "cured" because their clutter is gone, she thinks that attitude can be dangerous.

Of her tendency to hang on to all things printed, she says, "I will have to watch it for ever".

Reviewed on May 31, 2009

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