Compulsive hoarding can turn your home into a disaster zone and interfere with your life: You might not be able to cook in your kitchen, eat at your dining room table or sleep in your bed.

But how do you know if you’re slightly disorganized, just a bit of a packrat or actually a hoarder? When you can’t function in your living space, that’s a big sign of a potential hoarding problem, said psychologist Fugen Neziroglu, director of the Bio-Behavioral Institute in New York and author of “Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding: Why You Save and How You Can Stop.”

You also can take a quiz from the Bio-Behavioral Institute that lists more signs of hoarding, such as:

  • Fighting with your family over your stuff.
  • Storing items at places outside your home.
  • Thinking a lot about your possessions.
  • Never having anyone over because of your clutter.

To learn more about the signs of hoarding, visit blog.sparefoot.com/4243-signs-that-youre-a-hoarder.

If you suspect that you have—or a loved one has—a problem, it’s important to get help right away. Here are eight steps to deal with a hoarding problem.

1. Get the Right Kind of Help.

First, look for a therapist experienced in dealing with hoarding, said Elspeth Bell, a psychologist who specializes in treating hoarders. It also can be helpful to find a professional organizer who has worked extensively with hoarders, she said. In addition, some communities offer hoarding support groups.

Sometimes, family members have to find a therapist who can advise them on how to get a hoarder to attend even one therapy session, Neziroglu said. “Then, it’s the therapist’s job to engage the hoarder into treatment,” she said.

To read about the “Hoarders” TV show, visit blog.sparefoot.com/7430-hoarders-returning-to-cable-tv.

2. Start Treatment at Home.

Experts say the therapist should visit the home at least once. “If they’re not willing to come to your house, you need to find another therapist,” said Neziroglu, who has traveled to Ohio, Alabama and Texas to treat hoarders.

If a home visit isn’t possible, some therapists will use Skype or allow a client to email photos of the home, Neziroglu said.

3. Look at the Reasons for Hoarding.

Fugen Neziroglu
Hoarding expert Fugen Neziroglu directs the Bio-Behavioral Institute.

The therapist will help the hoarder explore the underlying reasons for their attachment to objects. In some cases, hoarders have a sentimental attachment. For example, a woman whose husband died might cling to his clothes, Neziroglu said. “She might say, ‘He wore this shirt when we went to Hawaii,’” Neziroglu said.

In other cases, people with hoarding issues might be attached to items because they think they’ll need them—at some point.

“They might say, ‘I need 40 cans of tomato sauce in case I want to make lasagna. I might run out,’” Neziroglu said.

4. Start Small.

Hoarders often get overwhelmed, but the therapist or organizer can help them decide where to start. For example, the professional might help a client identify specific items he or she could get rid of without much difficulty. A hoarder might be able to toss some old pizza boxes more easily than a collection of figurines, Neziroglu said.

“Start with one little corner,” she said. “Decide what you’re going to save, what you’re going to throw out and what needs immediate attention.”

When Neziroglu leaves a client’s house, she makes sure to take the objects the client has decided to purge. “If I leave it outside or in an apartment dumpster,” she said, “they will go back and get it all out.”

5. Stick With Treatment.

A man with a counselor
Treatment for hoarding can take months.

Treatment can take months, and it might involve sessions at the client’s home, meetings at the therapist’s office and homework assignments, Bell said. Homework tasks might include working to declutter one area in the home or going on a shopping trip without buying anything, Bell said. The goal is to examine uncomfortable feelings as they come up, challenge beliefs that contribute to hoarding and teach the client new skills, she said.

6. Deal With Outside-the-Home Hoarding.

Experts say it’s common for hoarders to have one or more self-storage units, and those should be cleared out during treatment. For example, Neziroglu said one woman spent her $600-a-month disability check on storage and slept in her car. And Bell has had clients who’ve had as many as five self-storage units. “That gets really expensive,” she said.

7. Get Help for Caregivers.

Hoarding can put a big strain on relationships, experts say. Sessions with a therapist and meetings with a support group can teach people close to hoarders how to deal with anger and other emotions, and how to set limits, Neziroglu said.

Loved ones also can learn how to help a hoarder in a compassionate way. For example, family members never should barge into a hoarder’s home and start tossing stuff out, Bell said. “Don’t touch anything without permission—even if it looks like trash,” she said.

8. Schedule Follow-Up Sessions.

Once the initial treatment is over, follow-up sessions with the therapist can help prevent backsliding. Visits might be recommended once a week at first, then once every two weeks, becoming less frequent over time. Neziroglu said there’s a “strong tendency” to return to hoarding behavior.

Top photo courtesy of Colin Smith/LinkedIn

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Allie Johnson