Why Can’t We Let Go? The Science of Attachment and Hoarding 

The feeling of not wanting to part with our possessions, even if we know we don’t need and never use them, is powerful. Linked with all kinds of life experiences and natural instincts, there may never be an accurate definition that covers why people hold onto stuff so vehemently for no apparent reason. Suffice it to say that the brain is a complicated piece of equipment we have barely begun to understand, and the motivations to hoard may run much deeper than a superficial proclivity to retain items that have outlived their usefulness.  

Recent television programs on hoarding have spotlighted a little-understood phenomenon and doubled efforts to understand and rectify the underlying issues. In this article, we will examine the science of attachment and hoarding and offer some advice based on experts’ suggestions if you or someone you know find yourselves straying into the category of ‘hoarder’.

The definition of hoarding

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes the condition thus:

“Hoarding is the compulsive purchasing, acquiring, searching, and saving of items with little or no value. The behavior usually has deleterious effects – emotional, physical, social, financial, and even legal – for a hoarder and family members.”

Sentimentality and nostalgia

Holding onto keepsakes and sentimental objects is a legitimate way to rationalize keeping many of the items we cannot bear to throw away. But how do we explain when people cannot let anything go, even used packaging and random trash that should mean nothing to them? This would tend to indicate the presence of mental health issues that may have long gone unaddressed or the results of past traumas and negative experiences that the holder has been unable to move past. The tragedy is that it is estimated that anywhere between 2% and 6% of adults in any given population have some form of hoarding disorder. Typically, but not exclusively hereditary, the condition appears to affect more women than men, but this anecdotal distinction remains scientifically unproven.

Pack rats vs hoarders

We all know somebody we would describe to their face as a ‘pack rat’ who refuses to let go of the most random things we would never dream of keeping. And, in turn, we probably know people who seem to form very little attachment to material possessions and would view our own ‘moderate’ collection of chattels as the stuff of madness. The scope of human attachment to inanimate objects is a broad-ranging one with the ability to fascinate and horrify in equal measure. 

The subject is too complex and nuanced to safely describe the point at which keeping too many items for emotional reasons turns into full-blown hoarding. Still, as soon as the person begins to grow attached to empty packaging and broken, dirty rubbish, it is safe to say the transition is well underway.

The dangers of hoarding

  • Disease and infection

As piles of accumulated items grow, so do the dirt and dust that settles onto them. This is especially problematic if pets are left to roam around the debris, leaving urine and feces in random places, risking toxoplasmosis. Rodents and insects love the plethora of hiding places, food scraps, and nesting materials, and it is hard to envisage any house inhabited by a chronic hoarder that does not have pests running rampant. Even without the presence of animals, hoarded items can lead to respiratory issues, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other dangerous issues.  

  • Risk of injury

Navigating towers of junk that can topple at any moment is unsafe, especially for the elderly or infirm, and trips, falls, and head injuries from falling items are a risk.

  • Fire hazards

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how so much stuff in one location represents a severe fire risk. With obstructed sockets and electrical items, cluttered, filthy kitchens, and flammable items strewn everywhere, it is a dangerous nightmare. 

  • Social isolation

Inviting friends over to visit is not an option in severe cases of hoarding, and the likelihood is that those individuals have little interest in social interactions by that stage. Family members despair, and it can put an immense strain on relationships. Most people cannot understand why their loved one refuses to throw anything away, and they have no concept of how to help them to help themselves. They often feel embarrassed to associate themselves with the person involved. Many give up, and contact can slip away. The isolation can exacerbate the situation, which can spiral out of control frighteningly quickly once the individual seeks comfort in their ‘possessions’, worthless though most of them likely are. 

Proactive steps

It is trite to say that the first step towards clearing a home of excess stuff is straightforward or even possible for people with serious disorders. However, there are some things you can do if you are heading in the wrong direction yourself and want to stem the ever-rising tide. Most people could benefit from decluttering their lives, and it can be a very enlightening, cathartic experience to finally let things go. 

If you are not confident you can handle the process, start small, making piles and labeling them ‘keep’, ‘not sure’, ‘sell’, and ‘throw-away’, or find another system that works for you and stick to it. There may be much anxiety to face, but this is an essential part of the catharsis, and it will feel amazing once complete. Don’t be afraid to seek help or search for tips on performing this task successfully, and recognize that you are not alone in struggling to rid your life of excess items. 

Contact us

Tackling a property that a hoarder has filled can be an unimaginable task to undertake alone, but help is at hand. Even when all the junk is removed and disposed of, the property itself will be in a terrible state that requires the assistance of experts like those at Aftercare. If you would like to discuss our work in Norfolk or request a quote for our cleanup services, please get in touch with us, and we’ll be happy to help. We treat all inquiries respectfully with unwavering discretion and have built a reputation as highly effective cleanup professionals who will go the extra distance to ensure our clients’ comfort and satisfaction during their most difficult moments.