Interestingly, brain scans of people with hoarding disorder show abnormalities in the region of the brain that is associated with decision-making. For some people with hoarding disorder, the root of the behavior lies in the pleasure they get from acquiring new possessions, particularly at bargain prices (for instance at garage sales or discount stores); for others it is the anxiety that comes with disposing of anything they own that is most problematic.
Are you a Hoarder?
If the following statements describe you, it’s quite likely that you have hoarding disorder.
- You find it difficult to give away, throw away or sell anything you own, regardless of whether or not it has any actual value
- Your possessions are taking over your home or certain parts of it to the extent that the space is unusable for anything else
- You feel uncomfortable letting anyone see your accumulation of possessions because of what they’ll say
- Your intense attachment to your possessions is creating problems – emotional, physical, financial, professional or legal – in your life
In its most recent revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, hoarding disorders has been identified as a distinct problem with specific recommended treatments. Many people with hoarding disorder also have obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and/or depression, issues which also must be addressed for treatment to be successful.
Feel Good Naturally
Many so-called “shopaholics” have lost their ability to feel good naturally, without buying things. It’s understandable to want to experience pleasure – and with practice, it’s easy to do naturally, instantly, almost anywhere!
Mindfulness is the art of living in the present moment. Though you may have some uncomfortable feelings, such as anger (about what’s past) and anxiety (about what lies ahead), being able to pay attention to where you are right now and enjoy this moment is key to being able to function well.
When you find yourself with an urge to shop (which is really an urge to do something that makes you feel good), try this instead – it’s a way to interrupt your habitual way of thinking, shift the impulse to buy in a different direction and focus on finding pleasure in where you are and what you are doing.
The first step is to quiet your mind. It’s a fact that you cannot listen and think at the same time (and “thinking” in this context refers to the anxious, impulsive and/or compulsive thoughts that are looping in your brain).
Here’s what to do: Where ever you are, whatever you are doing, if you find that anxiety is building within, take 3 – 5 minutes to just sit and listen, with your full attention, to the sound in your environment. Whether what you hear is a lawn mower, rain, music, the air conditioner, music or even just the sound of your own breathing, listen closely.
Next comes deep breathing. I like a form deep breathing that I learned while working on my fellowship with Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s called “4 – 7-8 Breathing” and it’s a simple technique that has been shown to quiet the mind and calm the body.
- Exhale, completely emptying your lungs.
- Close your mouth and inhale through your nose, four a count of 1 – 2-3 – 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale, completely (make a “whooshing” sound to help empty your lungs) to a count of 8.
- Repeat the cycle several times.
Now that you’ve calmed yourself – physically and mentally – you can examine your feelings and uncover the source of your anxiety, the reason you are feeling compelled to shop. Do this by asking yourself “What am I feeling? Am I in reaction to something?”
If the answer is yes, ask yourself “What am I reacting to?” Is the anxiety based on things that happened in the past or fears about what might happen in the future? Or is there something happening right now that requires your focus and attention in a problem-solving way?
If your answer to the “Am I in reaction” question relates to the past or the future, try this technique to bring yourself into the here and now. This is something I do regularly in my own life. I learned it from Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth. What he does is to observe and describe each moment as he lives it. In an interview with Oprah, he discusses what it looks like to be in the present moment by describing himself waiting in his hotel room for a car to arrive to take him back to a lecture hall. “The car come and the telephone rings, simple; I go downstairs and get in the car, simple; on the drive, blue sky, green trees, simple.”
This works so well for me that I’m able to bring my awareness into the present very quickly by just repeating to myself, “blue sky, green tree.” It’s like a mantra that brings on a meditative moment for me. When I find myself feeling overwhelmed and anxious about life, no matter where I am (even in Manhattan!) I find that almost always there’s a tree outside and sky above that I can use to focus my attention. “Blue sky, green tree” has become my signal to stop, tune in to the world around me and turn off my anxious thoughts. Try it! Feel free to use these words or find some that work for you.