Hoarding: What Is It?

Hoarding:  What Is It?

By Carolyn Bulmash, LCSW


In recent years, we have all become more aware of hoarding situations.  From the TV show “Hoarders” to multiple news stories about dozens of neglected animals, hoarding is becoming more of a known and talked about issues.  So what exactly is hoarding?

It’s only been a few years since hoarding has been recognized as its own diagnosis. Hoarding used to be considered a form of OCD, but through further study and research some distinctive differences in the disorders have been identified.  Most notably, people with OCD tend to feel bad.  While they mean feel relief once a ritual is completed (checking the door knob 3 times, or counting tiles on the kitchen floor), their obsessive behaviors are anxiety provoking for them.  Hoarders, on the other hand, tend to feel happy when they have collected something new or gotten a great deal on an item (even if they don’t need it).  Due to these feelings of joy, hoarding is more difficult to treat as individuals not only want to hold on to their items, but their happiness as well.

Hoarding is also different than collecting.  A collector enjoys showing off their prized possessions. For a collector, items are organized and often kept behind glass or in plastic sleeves.  Those with hoarding disorder are generally protective of their items and do not like others to see or look through what they have.   While people with hoarding disorder may hold on to items such as bags or old cups, these items are rarely sorted by type and may be crumbled or crushed under other items.

Individuals with hoarding disorder have great difficulty getting rid of items because of a strong perceived need to save them or distress in thinking about discarding the items. These symptoms eventually result in a large number of possessions that congest and clutter living areas to the point they are unusable.  It is not uncommon for a hoarder to sleep on a couch, as their bed and bedroom may be entirely filled with items.  A growing number of people with hoarding behaviors also do not use their refrigerator as they cannot access them due to other clutter in the kitchen, or use them as a storage place or other items.  It is common for those with untreated hoarding behaviors to eventually begin filling their garage and yard with items when no room is left in the house.

People with hoarding disorder often save items because they feel items will be needed or have value in the future. Items may hold emotional significance and remind the individuals of happy memories and individuals in their lives, making it difficult to let go.

How does one become a hoarder?  Research has shown hoarding to be, at least in part, a genetic disorder. Hoarding is also seen more frequently in survivors of childhood abuse.  However, trauma at any age can potentially set off hoarding behaviors. Other psychological disorders are often present with hoarding behaviors including depression and anxiety. A growing number of individuals with ADHD also appear at risk for hoarding. Signs and symptoms of hoarding disorder generally start during the teen years.  If not treated, hoarding tends to become more severe over time as more items are accumulated causing greater dysfunction.

Hoarding disorders present several complications and risk factors. For example, collecting garbage creates insanity living conditions that post a health risk. People are more likely to fall or become trapped by shifting and falling items. Homes often become fire hazards due to the amount of items often propped up against outlets, or vast hoarding of papers can ignite and spread quickly.   It is not uncommon for those with hoarding disorders to be at risk for legal problems such as eviction.

Hoarding is a treatable condition.  If you or someone you know are struggling to manage a hoarding disorder, please call one of our therapists at Associates in Psychotherapy.  We can help.  Call 866-220-8371 to make an appointment.