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Thank you so much for participating, or if you came to participate I’m sorry to have missed you…next time.

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Mindfulness: What’s all the fuss about?

So many of you have completed my survey and the feedback has been insightful and thought provoking.  One question I have had is:

How can mindfulness help me with my hoarding tendencies?

Great question!

First of all what is mindfulness?  Well it’s paying deliberate attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment and it’s the practice of paying attention to the present moment experience…living your life in a way as if it matters.  It’s not the same as meditation which tends to be of a spiritual or religious nature.  Let me demonstrate what it isn’t.

We have a tendency to live our lives in our heads…I think I’ll be getting a few nods right now… There is a tendency for us (humans I mean) to move through our lives without taking in the sights, sounds, smells and feel of our environment in the moment because we are programmed to seek out the negative events as a survival instinct.  Modern life throws up a plethora of negative events daily, the majority of which aren’t life threatening.  We are forever replaying experiences in our minds – usually negative ones – that we stew over and over; this rumination about the past leads to depression.  These are the “what ifs” and “if onlys” of our thought processes.  For hoarding sufferers this is all those thoughts about:

If only…

I had more room,

I hadn’t bought every colour available in that dress,

I had let go of these years ago,

and the:

What if…

I hadn’t thrown out those screws 10 years ago I could save some money now,

I had sold those collectables now instead of 4 years ago and made my fortune,

I throw out that psychology textbook and need it the very next day…

The fear of future hardship or loss that is only hypothetical leads to anxiety.  Perfectionism makes us save “just in case” because we don’t want to make mistakes.

So you can see we tend to live in the past or in the future but rarely in the present.  The thing is – we can’t change the past and we can’t predict the future so essentially these thoughts are unproductive and – dare I say – damaging.  I know it seems fantastical that we can forget our pasts, because they form who we are and who we will be, however from time to time it is beneficial to get out of our heads, stop the constant mental dialogue and just be in the now.  Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Life is right now” is worth a watch.  The developer of the mindfulness measure and the man who brought mindfulness to mainstream medicine, Kabat-Zinn, is passionate and knowledgeable about this movement and the physical and psychological benefits of being present for each and everyone of us.  So what can mindfulness do for you?

We are all seeking happiness and mindfulness can help move us towards a more fulfilling life.  The benefits of mindfulness are many and there is science to back it up.  It improves wellbeing by supporting many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life.  Being mindful makes it easier to savour the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events.  By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.

Physically mindfulness can:

  • help relieve stress
  • treat heart disease
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduce chronic pain
  • improve sleep
  • alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties

Mindfulness has been shown to be an important element in the treatment of:

  • depression
  • substance abuse
  • eating disorders
  • couples’ conflicts
  • anxiety disorders
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder

How can I be more mindful and gain the benefits?

Another great question:

Psychology Today has a great number of excellent how-to articles that can help you learn to be more mindful.  A simple way to start is by concentrating on your breathing – it’s impossible to be stressed or anxious when you are focusing fully on the breath like this.

How could you be more mindful in your life? (hint, one way is concentrating fully on the process of doing the dishes not wishing you were finished or hoping for the clean-up fairy to drop in and wave his wand 🙂 )

Stress from the mess? …12 strategies to help you relax

Stress from the mess? …12 strategies to help you relax

“Every morning is a struggle. The bathroom is so cluttered I keep losing the kids toothbrushes.   I can’t find clean clothes for the children let alone me.  School books go missing in the hoard.  Papers strewn all over every flat surface in the kitchen makes it difficult to prepare a healthy food.  I feel frazzled and stressed out of my mind – all.the.time.  This overwhelming pressure is paralysing me!”  Can you relate?

Last post  I talked about hoarding possibly being a survival gene gone rogue and how stress can cause us to “hang on” to weight and possessions in preparation for tough times ahead.  A little bit of stress is motivating and helps us get out of tricky situations; without it we would probably still be searching for our food on the savannah.   However, the ubiquitous, relentless stress of modern life is debilitating.

So what can any of us do to relieve stress and get back in control of our lives?

Here’s 12 things I’ve tried (I could always try harder of course):

  1. Walk – take a short 10-15 minute walk when you feel overwhelmed; we keep getting told walking is magic so maybe we should give it a go
  2. Breathe – try this: breathe to the count of 4, hold for 7, breathe out for 8; this will help when you are stressed and in pain
  3. Take a mental vacation – You’ll need 10 minutes and a quiet private spot.  Imagine your happy place (mine’s a hammock on the beach under a palm tree), hear the sounds, feel the sand or the grass under your feet or the sun on your face; just like a mini-break
  4. Pet a small animal – this can be very soothing and reduce stress as well as help you get well quicker if you’re sick
  5. Laugh – watch a funny movie or YouTube video – just a smile can reduce your stress level
  6. Make time for fun – dance, sing, join a club, take up a new hobby…research suggests a sense of belonging will like-minded people can help decrease stress and improve depressive symptoms
  7. Do one thing at a time – multi-tasking will only increase stress…try to stay in the present moment not ruminating over the past or stressing over the future – be.all.there.
  8. Do something kind – a random act of kindness, like buying a stranger a month of free coffees, is a big gesture but even just a smile for a neighbour or complementing a co-worker reduces your stress – and theirs
  9. Forgive yourself – Self-compassion has taken over from self-esteem; being kind to yourself is important too
  10. Talk to someone – call a friend, drop into a local coffee shop; connecting with people and sharing your worries can really help reduce stress
  11. Throw your stress in the garbage – write down everything that’s stressing you and tear the paper up; burning it in the backyard is even better 🙂
  12. Change what you can – ruminating over what is outside of your control won’t help – trust me I’ve tried

Do you have any ways you decompress?  Tell me about ’em.

Survival Gene Gone Rogue

Survival Gene Gone Rogue

What do you think about this idea? “A complex gene, body weight and psychopathology relationship wherein a primitive, survival “thrift gene” strategy may be conserved and represented in a subgroup of humans manifesting severe hoarding symptoms”*. Put plainly, this hypothesis is suggesting hoarding is an adaptive evolutionary behaviour gone rogue.

Animals tend to use two strategies to manage energy demands when there is a shortage of food or when they are faced with other stressful situations. First, they gain weight via fat storage for use later on (or “Ron” as we say in Australia), so the body actually stores more fat from every meal no matter how high or low the caloric value. Second, animals tend to hoard actual food stores. In stressful environments, studies have shown mice and other rodents hoard more food and carry more weight.

Animal studies are all very well but we can’t be expected to believe that humans will behave in the same way as mice or rats… can we? Humans are the thinking animal with emotions, feelings, and an understanding of our impact on others and our environment aren’t we? But what if, in times of stress, our primitive brain is storing fat and we are hoarding “stuff” because it is protecting us from future scarcity just like the animals we evolved from? In our primitive past, stress was being chased and eaten by predators or killed by other tribes but in 2015 our stress may just be a constant feeling of not being “enough” or the nagging notion of being a “failure”. Our brain can’t tell the difference. Hunters and gatherers experienced the “fight or flight” response when faced with a predator. They dealt with the stress by killing or being killed. Either way this stress response was short lived; if it persisted, it was likely to be due to famine, severe weather, or some other external threat. In this case saving energy, by way of “hoarding” fat and supplies, was the right strategy.

So while our primitive brain is telling our body, in times of stress, to save – save – save, the sophisticated brain is trying desperately to manage our emotions – which are the cause of our stress. So you see the brain is conspiring to keep us overweight and overstuffed. Both hoarding and dysfunctional eating patterns have been linked to emotion regulation. Eating and hoarding are both coping mechanisms that have evolutionary relevance. Comfort food and comfort objects… I’m just sayin…

We need ways to manage our emotions in order to reduce the stress in our lives. Well how the heck do we do that? Let me know your thoughts or successful strategies and I’ll let you know mine next time.

*Timpano, K. R., Schmidt, N. B., Wheaton, M. G., Wendland, J. R., & Murphy, D. L. (2011). Consideration of the BDNF gene in relation to two phenotypes: Hoarding and obesity. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 120, 700–707. doi:10.1037/a0024159

“Where do I start?”: 6 steps on the road to recovery

“Where do I start?”: 6 steps on the road to recovery

You’ve made the decision.  Drawn the line in the sand.  It’s time to get organised!  Then you start thinking about where to start.

Decision-making is so difficult for you…

What if I start in the wrong place?

Where is the “best” place to start?

What are the “best” organising strategies?

How many times have you gone to start addressing your mountain of possessions only to be faced with the paralysis of indecision?  Your perfectionist self takes over and bombards you with thoughts about how many times you’ve tried before.  How useless and disorganised and worthless these efforts have been in the past.  I say: thank your mind for it’s input.  Other people’s opinions about your lifestyle don’t create change for you do they?  Heck no!  You don’t listen to them putting you down and criticising every attempt you make to get your life together?  Hell no!  Well why do you let your mind do it to you?  There’s a saying about not judging people by their words, judge them by their actions.

Tell you mind politely to go get knicked and start taking action.

But in which direction?  How? Why?

OK try these steps:

STEP 1

  • Decide on what you value most in life.
  • What are your possessions stopping you from doing?
  • What are the things that give your life meaning?
    • Is it family?
      • do you want your kids to feel they can invite friends over?
      • do you have grandkids that you can’t have over because of the state of your hoard?
    • Is it your marriage?
    • Is it your health?
  • Even though you have trouble making decisions this is THE decision.  What do you truly value? Effort here is worth it…this is the direction your life will take.
  • DON’T pick a goal like “have the bedroom clutter free by May 2015” or “have my family over for Christmas dinner in a clutter free dining room”.  There’s nothing wrong with goals but they come second you achieve goals that lead to living a valued life.  Once you’ve achieved a goal – what next?
  • Living a valued life –> one you find meaningful will guide you in every decision you make from here on… Hear your brains objections but don’t listen.  

How do you work out what your values even are?

  • TRY THIS: Imagine your funeral…I know that’s truly confronting but stay with me…
    • What would you want people to say about you in your eulogy?  What stories would you want them to tell about you?  What do you want to be remembered for?

There’s your answer.

STEP 2

  • Depending on your life values – start where the most impact will be felt.
    • e.g. You want your family to visit you more so you can connect with them but they don’t have anywhere to sit down and have a coffee…
      • start with the couch or kitchen table – initially it might be BYOE (bring-your-own-espresso) situation BUT it’s a step towards reconnecting with loved ones.  Done that?  Now call someone and invite them over…

STEP 3

  • Each day work on the same area to reveal the vision you have for the space in your minds eye (if you feel like it draw a plan for the room and post it on the wall).
  • Spend a minimum of 30 mins (set a timer on your phone or watch) and commit to sort for the entire time – no excuses.

STEP 4

  • Take pictures.  Each day – before you start and after you finish.  Visual motivation is great.  Post your progress to a support group.  Clutter blindness is a real thing so take a photo and really “see” what the room looks like.

STEP 5

  • Recruit a helper.  Once you’ve done 2-3 days, maybe a week, of work on your own and you feel ready to ask for help to move forward, book someone you can trust to be non-judgmental and co-operative to help you once a week for between 30 minutes to 2 hours (if you have physical disabilities 30 minutes is enough because if you set a higher target you may feel like a failure if you don’t achieve the allotted time).
  • Ask THEM to remove the charity and recycling items for you.
  • Agree on your terms BEFORE you do anything.  Choose wisely (someone neutral with no emotional ties) because this is going to move things along more quickly than you working alone by: keeping you on task, focussing your attention and giving you emotional support when needed – and trust me you will need it.

STEP 6

Celebrate your achievement.  Post the finished room pics with a description of how you feel and how much closer you are to living the life you deserve.  You know you can do this.  I believe in you 🙂


Change the conversation

Change the conversation

ME: “You don’t need 10 ironing boards!”

CLIENT: ” Throwing them out is wasteful.  They’re all still good.”

ME: “But you don’t have room to iron in here…”

CLIENT: “My kids will need them when they move out…”

ME: “Your kids are 2 and 4!”

CLIENT: “Well maybe I can donate them BUT I’ll have to know they won’t be sent to landfill. I need to know they’re going to a good home and someone will use them.”

ME: “How about we try and experiment and take the ironing boards out of the house and see how you feel next week about letting them go?”

CLIENT: “NO! You’ll toss them and then all my hard work trying to save the environment will go to waste…(READ BETWEEN THE LINES: ‘and living in this mess for so long with nowhere for my children to play, will be for nothing’)”

FULL STOP.

In my Professional Organising life this type of conversation with the clutter challenged was a regular occurrence.  In fact, probably 80% of the time.  Starting the conversation sitting in the kitchen over a cup of tea, my client would discuss the problems associated with the disordered living spaces and pronounce they wanted to change – starting today.  However, when we got down to the physical sorting, something changed.  Time and time again clients would go from a macro view to a micro view and only see the stuff.  Conversations like the one above would continue in an eternal loop.

What if we STOP trying to use rational arguments and “evidence” to convince our clients/patients/family members that their attachment to their belongings is “irrational” or “maladaptive”?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the gold standard in treatment for hoarding disorder, confronts “flawed” cognitions, thoughts, and beliefs using rational arguments with supporting evidence to “disprove”them.  This can work well with symptoms that are in conflict with what a person thinks is their true nature or moral standpoint.  For example someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may have frequent disturbing thoughts about harming a family member and feels the need to counteract these immoral thoughts by saying the persons name three times to negate the effect those thoughts may magically have on the loved one.  Hoarding disorder appears to present in a different way to OCD;  the thoughts and beliefs hoarding sufferers have are in line with the person’s moral code; they’re core rationales for saving and acquiring are inherently “good”:

“People are wasteful, throwing away this perfectly good – chair/doll/jacket”

“I know this is still good, someone could use this!”

“I love the feeling of pride when I create something from nothing.”

The problem occurs when the sufferer’s core values are so strong they over-shadow other values like: health, family, friends, hobbies, and work.   CBT can easily be derailed because attempts at restructuring these beliefs, as demonstrated in the conversation above, that are in essence rational and positive – just out of proportion, can create a road-block, making progress close to impossible.

Could the treatment of clinical hoarding disorder be made more effective by simply focusing people back on their core values? … here is my attempt to demonstrate in a practical example:

ME: “What’s most important to you in your life going forward?”

CLIENT: “Well my family, friends, especially my children – and their health.  Heck, my health.”

ME: “You also value the environment and try not to waste don’t you?”

CLIENT: “Yes, it’s always been very important to me.  I get very cross when I see people throwing out perfectly good stuff that is still good/useful.  I’m very passionate about it.”

ME: “Is it more important than family, friends, health…your children’s development?”

CLIENT: “Hell no!!! That’s ridiculous… I’m very focused on my family.  I don’t work so I can be there for my kids!”

ME: “Can you see the disconnect here?  You say family is THE most important thing to you..?”

CIENT: “Yes…”

ME: “Yet your values around the environment and reducing waste have taken the front position..?”

CLIENT: “I wouldn’t say that!” (defensively)

ME: “Your behaviours right now are not in line with your true values.”

CLIENT: “But my family understand my passion for the environment…”

ME: “Yes, to a point, but they don’t deserve to live in this clutter; it’s unsafe, and is not a nurturing environment.”

CLIENT: “But you don’t understand – if I stop no one will pick up where I left off and so much will be wasted.  I can’t let that happen.”

ME: “Right now all you’re doing is picking up stuff to bring home … and you’ve turned your house into the tip! Do you agree?  Take a look at this photo of the children’s room…”

CLIENT: “Oh goodness, does it really look like that?”

ME: “Yes”

CLIENT: “My family is the most precious thing to me and I need to change NOW.  I don’t want them growing up without a space to play and relax!”

ME: “First thing you need to do is accept that other’s behaviours are OUTSIDE your control.  If others waste things, you can’t solely be responsible for making right their mistakes.”

CLIENT: “So, I’m not a one woman crusade?” LAUGH

ME: “We need to help you refocus on your true values – your family and the environment in a way that is workable.”

CLIENT: “That doesn’t sound possible.”

ME: “Begin with accepting what you can’t change – others wastefulness.  When you feel the urge and hear those voices telling you to save the planet by picking up someone else’s roadside junk say: ‘Thanks mind that’s great BUT I’m going to behave in a way that gives me a more fulfilling life – by NOT picking up that junk.’  Every time you feel like acquiring something or keeping something you don’t need as you work through the house – remember your key value is family.  Listen to the voice if you like, feel the anxiety involved but take action in the direction of your true values anyway.  I’m not going to say it will be easy or anxiety-free but it can be done.  Behave in the way you want your life to be…don’t let the voice control you.  They’re just words in your head, not the truth and unless they take you in the direction of your deepest values they are unworkable and you can disregard them.  Don’t fight with the words; arguing about the truth is futile because everyone holds a different version of the truth.  Agree to disagree.”

CLIENT: “So you think I need to find a new way to help protect the environment that is workable for me in light of my core values?”

ME: “Exactly.  This isn’t going to be easy but once you have your values in mind you can gain control of the hoarding, the hoarding won’t control you.”

CLIENT: “I choose the people not the stuff!”

While my demo conversation may be Pollyanna-ish, it gives you the idea of what I mean by values-focus.  It may take time to get this idea of valued living across to the hoarding sufferer over a number of sessions, but if you keep getting stuck in an endless loop, stop arguing.  Your truth is different to theirs and you don’t need to agree, just help them find what is central to their sense of wellbeing.

I’ve been neglecting my … friends – Jimmy, Christian, and Manolo

I’ve been neglecting my … friends – Jimmy, Christian, and Manolo

On the weekend my husband was lamenting about the weather and the kids. Every time he “threatened” to go outside with them, the weather “turned” on him and rained. As if the weather was being vindictive or contrary by siding with the kids in their pursuit of sedentary activities.

One of the theories of “hypersentimentality” (which just means excessive attachment to stuff) is anthropomorphism – a mouthful I know but it’s a fascinating concept.  Just hang in there it’s worth it.

Anthropomorphism (ehh?) is a phenomenon, which is characterised by reflecting or imbibing human elements onto non-human entities – sort of magical thinking if you like.  It could be a pet or a computer. It’s not only human movement, which is more animism; it’s emotions and feelings as well as intention.  Making our possessions seem human means we become more attached to them and feel a strong sense of loss when letting them go.  Marketers like to anthropomorphise products because it makes consumers buy more stuff…like us, for example; we just bought a new car and gave it a name (Izzy) because if the kids believe the car has feelings and emotions they will be more “careful” and not hurt “her”.

For example, I was watching The Living Room (Australian TV show on Channel 10) with Peter Walsh (Australian – American Professional Organiser, often called Oprah’s Go-To man, and all round nice guy).  He was helping a young couple get control of their possessions. The girl had been assaulted 8 years ago and since then had been feeling very depressed and anxious and was unable to function successfully outside the home.  Her and her partner lived in a 2 bedroom flat and it was a bit of a mess. I wouldn’t call it “hoarding” by any stretch but extremely cluttered with no sense of order.   The state of the flat was not improving and was affecting her relationship with her partner.

The girl felt “safe” being surrounded by her stuff and when confronted with the prospect of letting go of just ONE pair of her 97 pairs of shoes (yup almost 100 pairs of footwear) she described her shoes as her “friends” and it would be too overwhelming to let any of them go – like they might feel “neglected” or “abandoned”… I guess like she felt in some way. She was assaulted and that shouldn’t have happened to her and someone or something should have saved her from that fate. Perhaps she felt her possessions were within her control and she could “save” them from a similar “fate”. So I got to thinking about her choice of words during the interview. There was this sense of anthropomorphising her stuff.  It was also, in some way, an extension of her personality (but we’ll leave extended-self for another time shall we?) and she did seem to be transferring her feelings onto inanimate objects.

The breakthrough came when she looked at which items she most treasured and couldn’t let go of. Peter Walsh took a positive spin on the process. Rather than “parting with” individual items, every item from the home was removed to a secondary location and only what was most loved, useful, or essential was returned; this led to a dramatic change in the young woman’s perspective.  It allowed her to choose which possessions she  truly treasured see the rest of the items for what they really were…just things.  Not friends but objects she didn’t need that were holding her back from living a full and valued life.

This anthropomorphism is difficult to understand.  Why do some hoarders think all their stuff needs to be “saved” and “loved”?  Why do we all, at one time or another, think our cat is “plotting” against us or our computer is crashing coz it’s “evil” and  “knows” an assignment’s due?

I don’t know…do you?

What are your thoughts about anthropomorphism?  Do you do it?  Why do you do it?