The lonely elderly woman whose house is overrun with cats; the eccentric gentleman who can’t throw anything away, including his mountain-like stack of newspapers; the shopaholic mom who has three or more of everything and still keeps on spending despite rising debts; hoarding conjures up stereotypical images which paint a picture of isolated individuals leading troubled lives. However, the fact is that behind closed doors, hoarding is a relatively common disorder, affecting 2-5% of the population across the US.

What is hoarding?

In essence, hoarding is the saving, buying or collecting of a large amount of items without any real reason, need, or sense of organization. The sheer volume of the hoarded items encroaches on living spaces, affecting the daily lives of sufferers, as well as causing distress to those close to them. Hoarding can be a destructive psychological disorder.

What are the symptoms of hoarding?

Some hoarders may be aware of their condition and yet feel they are unable to change their behavior without professional support. However, many do not possess this insight and may need help in recognizing some of the telltale signs that they have a problem that goes beyond clutter and toward chaos:

  • A buildup of clutter – Hoarding can soon lead to a huge, ever increasing volume of possessions which pile up, bulging out of closets, filling-up spare rooms and even taking over living spaces and outdoor areas. It is not uncommon for hoarders to buy multiple identical items or to shop for goods without ever taking them out of the packaging.
  • Reluctance to throw away possessions – The items kept are often not of any use or real value, such as newspapers. Often there is an over-sentimental value attached, or a possession will be seen as irreplaceable or deemed to be particularly special or one-of-a-kind; many items are kept in case they become useful or valuable at some point in the future, regardless of the likelihood of that scenario.
  • Physical restriction – Having so many possessions in the home that you cannot use rooms freely or function in the cluttered space is a sign of hoarding. In some cases rooms are impossible to even get into or walk through, let alone use.
  • Feeling overwhelmed – Hoarders often have the feeling of being totally overtaken by possessions, as well as a sense of not being in control or knowing how to change their situation or behavior. This often involves an inability to organize possessions or make any practical decisions about what to do with them.
  • Dismissing real concerns – You may feel in denial that there is anything wrong in the face of concerns voiced by close friends and family. This leads to a withdrawal of sufferers in the face of criticism, upset and concern, as well as offers of help, preventing them from being able to recognize and change the situation.
  • Anxiety attached to possessions – The thought of de-cluttering fills you with dread and makes you feel stressed out, as does the idea of losing items or of not being able to keep or find what you are looking for.
  • Relationship problems – Embarrassment about a messy home; irritation with other people’s perceived interference in how to run your life; secretiveness and suspicion of the intervention of other people; hoarding issues can bring about and highlight strong emotions for individuals and between family and friends.

What causes hoarding disorder?

Until fairly recently hoarding was believed to be another form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), however it is now considered separate from these other disorders. Because of this, hoarding can often go undiagnosed and more often than not, untreated, causing sufferers to deal with the practical and psychological fallout of hoarding in silence.

In some cases, hoarding transpires as a way to avoid dealing with deeper issues. In effect, it can be a self-constructed barrier which creates challenges for sufferers to battle against, thus suppressing psychological pain. There is certainly a link between hoarding and experiencing traumatic events.

What are the negative consequences of hoarding?

Hoarding can have negative effects on an individual’s lifestyle, everyday functioning, and relationships. It can lead to social isolation through shame and/or conflict and a growing sense of isolation. As the problem worsens, sufferers can feel incredibly anxious and sink into depression, feeling as if they are trapped by their condition.

When possessions are crammed into rooms, the health and safety of sufferers with the disorder can be affected. This type of clutter creates the risks of fire and accidents from tumbling boxes and cluttered floor space, as well as hygiene concerns with mold, bacteria, and an inability to clean living areas adequately. These problems can spill over, sometimes quite literally, into neighboring properties too, which can lead to disputes and even legal proceedings.

Hoarding disorders can also have a monetary impact as well- the cost of collecting un-needed items potentially leading to financial difficulty and disaster. The knock-on effect of this can be devastating, such as loss of your home causing practical and emotional turmoil. Add onto this the feelings of guilt, sadness and anxiety and hoarding can build up a whole raft of negative emotions.

How can counseling help?

As with many psychological disorders, it can be part of the condition to feel as if overcoming and being free from symptoms is beyond reach or behavior is far too ingrained or complex to attempt change. However, counseling can help those who are affected by a hoarding disorder both physically and psychologically by:

  • Giving valuable insights into the reasons behind hoarding.
  • Developing decision-making skills.
  • Moving toward being able to organize possessions and de-clutter.

Hoarding goes beyond the level of collecting and is not an expression of eccentricity or individuality, but a clear if yet to be fully-defined psychological disorder. Counseling can be an effective strategy to help clear the way to a clutter-free existence with a far happier outlook.