Are you a collector or a hoarder?

A collection of lego

After a trip to the supermarket, we usually have a pile of plastic bags, which we’ll stash somewhere safe in the kitchen. We probably have fewer plastic bags these days because we’re into recycling and using our own cloth or non-woven bags. And you can save 10 cents by bringing your own bag. But we typically get a bag when we buy something. And we’ll stack these neatly in a pile somewhere at home. And that something that we’ve bought often comes in a box, which we’ll keep because it’ll come in useful some day.

Or perhaps you’re the sort that just throws everything away and recycles all the paper and cardboard products as soon as you get home to unwrap your new toy. Because you’re afraid of accumulating too much stuff and of becoming a hoarder. Because you know someone who is one.

It seems hard to imagine how one can keep so many things that the home becomes too cluttered to move or clean, even to the extent that a clean-up team from the Housing Development Board and National Environment Agency is required. But it’s a problem that’s much more common than you may think. As many as 1 in 50 show hoarding behaviours in Singapore, according to a 2015 study. And it’s a problem not simply solved with a clean up. Those who hoard have “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them” (Mayo Clinic). As such, they usually need professional help.

Although hoarding was previously categorized as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD, experts now recognize hoarding to be distinct from OCD (see also the DSM-V).

A 2012 study found that the brains of those who hoard were overstimulated when tasked with deciding whether to discard or keep junk mail that was addressed to them. In contrast, the same brain area was inactive for the same task involving junk mail addressed to a third party — a research lab. These findings speak volumes about the crippling indecision that those who hoard face when forced to clean up their homes.

Those who compulsively hoard tend to place much greater value on things that they keep and they place value on many more things that others would. And their anxiety which stems from trying to make discard-or-keep decisions, is a huge obstacle to gaining control over their cluttered homes. It’s no surprise that hoarding is without exception “always accompanied by anxiety“.

Perhaps we’re not quite there yet. We can claim to be collectors of plastic bags and cardboard boxes because they’re still sitting neatly in a drawer and a cupboard. But it may be useful to acknowledge when our collecting behaviours are turning into hoarding ones (refer to this Fact Sheet for signs and symptoms). Ask yourself these questions:

Do you feel overwhelmed by the clutter in your home?
Is the clutter preventing you from using your furniture or appliances?
Do you avoid having visitors so that they won’t see the clutter?

If yes, it may be time for you or your loved one to seek help. Professional help in the form of intensive cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT, with a therapist who has experience with hoarding behaviours, has been shown to be effective in helping hoarders.

Here are some resources for helping those who hoard to help themselves: Start by setting realistic and small goals (e.g., aim to clear one shelf). It’s never too late: Here are some top tips to help contain the clutter.

Staying off tobacco

Just knowing the health risks of tobacco (including lung cancer, head and neck cancers, and heart disease) and the mental health benefits of quitting tobacco (getting better quality sleep, improved mental health, and reduced stress levels) may not be adequate reasons to motivate smokers to quit. Studies show that campaigns which emphasize the truth about the tobacco industry and the real cost of smoking are more effective in helping people quit.

Social support helps people quit tobacco

Social support helps people quit tobacco

But what else? Here are what the research says:

1. Guidance from a professional coach
Research shows that professional counselling can help smokers successfully quit: A coach or counsellor can help individuals develop a personal stop-smoking plan.

2. Reduce dependence using nicotine medicines 
There are 5 nicotine medicines which are recognised to boost the success of quitting tobacco: gum, patch, lozenge, nasal spray, and inhaler.

3. Going cold turkey isn’t for everyone
Quitting on willpower is the least successful way to quit tobacco. But counselling and nicotine substitutes are not the only available strategies. Exercise reduces the urge to smoke and withdrawal symptoms, while social support via social media is gaining popularity for its efficacy in helping ex-smokers stay tobacco-free. And there are a few more: hypnosis, acupuncture, yoga, and mindfulness are some of them.

4. Get the right kind of emotional support
Participants in a 2014 study were better at talking to their loved ones about quitting smoking if they had received face-to-face or online training on how to communicate their concern (without nagging or confrontation) than if they received only pamphlets.

5. Don’t be afraid to use your smartphone
A 2014 study showed that constant reminders from a text-messaging service helped people stay off tobacco.

6. Challenge your brain
Engaging in exciting activities (e.g., puzzles, hobbies, games), which challenge the brain, with a loved one can be an effective strategy for reducing nicotine cravings.

7. Use e-cigarettes to boost willpower
E-cigarettes create an inhalable nicotine vapour by heating a liquid nicotine solution. It’s not clear what the long-term effects are, but research shows e-cigarettes to be more effective in helping people successfully quit smoking compared to willpower alone or patches and gum. Recent reports do however caution the use of e-cigarettes (“No conclusive evidence that e-cigarettes help smokers quit: WHO report”, Today online, 27 August 2014).

Quick tips to happiness

Quick Tips to Happiness

There are some reports that being happy means that we’re more productive at the workplace, judging by the desire of some organizations to increase workplace happinessIt might seem crazy what I’m about to saybut it seems that it might just be a little more important to help unhappy employees rather than find ways to make employees happier.

It’s not difficult to understand why unhappy employees are probably less engaged and less productive at their workplace (read this 2012 article). The impact of mental well-being on job productivity is plain to see. High levels of occupational stress impact psychological well-being and job satisfaction, which in turn adversely affect employee engagement and productivity. At the same time, prolonged exposure to stress not only damages our long-term memory capacity but also weakens our immune functioning. A recent study has even suggests that stress is contagious: Observing someone get stressed makes us feel stressed!

A 2011 study reveals that role conflict and role ambiguity are sources of stress which negatively impact mental well-being, while older findings point to job control (workers who have little control over their job outcome) and low levels of social support as other important source of stress. Equipping employees with stress management techniques and providing them with access to counselling (based on a sample of Malaysian fire-fighters) are frequent recommendations which arise from such studies.

Here we take a look at whether some tips for promoting happiness, even workplace happiness, are effective strategies for managing stress:

1. Exercise YES
Exercise is the key to managing stress levels. Exercise improves psychological mood and mental well-being, reduces depression symptoms and anxiety levels, and lowers absenteeism rates. The release of endorphins in exercise results in muscle relaxation and makes available neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenalin) which help make us feel good.

2. Meditation YES
Daily practice of a relaxation method resets the threshold at which we get angry (Goleman, 1998), thus helping us manage our stress levels. But this can be achieved through mindfulness where one focuses on breathing. But other methods such as pursuing creative hobbies are also found to be effective.

3. Nurturing social relationships YES
Using active coping strategies such as seeking social support (e.g., friends, family, co-workers) are associated with reduced job stress.

4. Having something to look forward to ERM…
We all need things to look forward to. That holiday in the mountains where smart devices do not work. Those weekly pilates and yoga classes. Happy people tend to have things they look forward to and find purpose in. But looking forward to it in itself is not part of the stress management kit. The self-care activities are.

5. Eliciting positive emotions and avoiding negative ones ERM…
Our ability to shift a bad mood to a good one develops in early childhood, although some of us may be better at regulating our own emotions than others. We typically aim to avoid things which elicit negative emotions for us and look towards things which promote positive emotions.

Faced with team conflicts, our desire to avoid confrontations and negative emotions can however cause us to stonewall and ignore the problem. Not particularly a productive way to solve a problem. Conversely, this tip advocates investing in things which promote positive emotions. One example is spending time in the green outdoors. It’s noteworthy though that this self-care activity works because it is an opportunity to exercise and it induces relaxation.

Emotions do affect productivity: A study in 2000 showed that teams with managers, who infused positive emotions into their team, were more cooperative and produced better task performance than teams whose managers expressed negative emotions. So being able to get ourselves out of a bad mood makes for effective teams and desirable managers. But it’s not a stress management tool.

6. Exercise fairness ERM…
Employees with fair managers are likely to be productive and engaged in their job. But fair managers can be at risk of burn out and need to take extra care of themselves! Exercising fairness is unlikely to be a useful stress management technique. Engaging in regular self-care (exercise, relaxation, social support) is.

7. Optimism, gratitude and kindness OH ALRIGHT, YES!
Changing one’s perspective on a problem is an active coping strategy which can be useful when coping with difficulties. We know it as “looking on the bright side of things” or optimism. Counsellors call this reframing the problem. It’s more effective for dealing with stressors than avoidance strategies such as distracting oneself with TV or food.

Seeing a problem as a challenge, and being therefore grateful for the challenge (previously a “problem”) and being subsequently intentionally kind to its source (known as “difficult colleague”), are useful when dealing with sources of stress. They help us navigate life’s stressful events and building mental resilience, as this article instructs.

Not surprisingly, gratitude is associated with stronger immune systems and psychological well-being, while altrustic acts are associated with better mental well-being. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that acts of intentional kindness produce improvements in life satisfaction (though note that gratitude is not a crutch for ignoring a problem).

So the first three and the last are useful for managing stress at the workplace. But there may just be a few important strategies missing from this list…

Be S.U.R.E. Know the facts. Do something about it.