Imagine opening your front door, having just arrived home from your workday, only to be greeted by towering piles of junk. As you walk through the entryway, you pass a stack of cardboard boxes filled with dusty 1990s National Geographic and Reader’s Digest magazines.In the living room, you navigate between piles of books, yellowing mail flyers, and empty cereal boxes. You head to the kitchen and open the fridge. It’s stuffed to the brim, but it’s hard to tell what’s edible amid Tupperware full of ancient leftovers and 17 bottles of ketchup.
This description might sound exaggerated, but if you’ve ever seen an episode of the TV show Hoarders, you know that it’s real life for some people.
Of course, hoarding doesn’t start with someone living in filth and disarray. It begins gradually, becoming more severe over time. Not all hoarders live in filth; they may just have piles of clutter or disorganized rooms packed with everything they’ve ever owned.
Author Susan Fekete shares her experience with her mom’s compulsive hoarding, describing her house as:
Full – floor to ceiling, windows to walls – of stuff. Her mass of belongings included objects de art, trinkets, furniture, memorabilia, books, magazines, journals… My mother was a terrific metaphysician, passionate about the world around her and the lives of others. She was spiritual even at her darkest moments, and funny even in her greatest sorrows. She was a joy to be around if you could avoid the stuff.
If you struggle with hoarding tendencies, or you love someone who has hoarding tendencies, you understand the pull of hoarding disorder and the havoc it can wreak in someone’s life and relationships.
In this article, we’ll discuss hoarding disorder, its risk factors, signs and symptoms, and how to get help for hoarders – what to do if you or a loved one struggles with this compulsion.
What is Hoarding?
Although many people would describe themselves as packrats, compulsive hoarding or hoarding disorder is distinct from liking to save stuff, being okay with some clutter, or collecting specific items.
The ADAA defines hoarding as “the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.”
Mayo Clinic expands on this definition for hoarding by describing how it starts:
Getting and saving an excessive number of items, gradual buildup of clutter in living spaces and difficulty discarding things are usually the first signs and symptoms of hoarding disorder, which often surfaces during the teenage to early adult years. (Mayo Clinic)
Hoarding is more indiscriminate and less organized than collecting. There’s also an element of mental distress and fixation involved with the disorder. It’s often co-occurring with other disorders such as OCD, ADHD, or depression, and can be a feature of OCPD (Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder).
Examples of Hoarding
It can be hard to relate if you don’t have hoarding tendencies, but piles of clutter and trash are, in some way, meaningful to the person who hoards. Hoarding compulsions range from paper products like newspapers and magazines to many different kinds of random items, to food and clothing. Other commonly hoarded items are cardboard boxes, pictures, and household supplies.
Another well-known compulsion of hoarders relates to animals. Animal hoarding affects over a quarter of a million animals in the United States each year (ASPCA), and although it is not usually intended to be cruel, it results in a lack of adequate care being provided to the animals.
Other types of hoarding compulsions can overlap with a shopping addiction or involve “compulsive acquisition of free items,” or the “compulsive search for perfect or unique items”
Symptoms of Hoarding Disorder
Let’s say you suspect your friend or family member might have an unusually extreme compulsion to save or store items, but you’re not sure it qualifies as a mental health problem. They don’t have piles of things stacked from floor to ceiling, but they do squirrel items away that most people wouldn’t, and seem unable to stop doing it, even when their actions don’t make sense.
What are some other symptoms you might look for to identify whether you or someone else has a hoarding problem? The ADAA shares these most common symptoms of hoarding disorder:
- Inability to throw away possessions
- Severe anxiety when attempting to discard items
- Great difficulty categorizing or organizing possessions
- Indecision about what to keep or where to put things
- Distress, such as feeling overwhelmed or embarrassed by possessions
- Suspicion of other people touching items
- Obsessive thoughts and actions: fear of running out of an item or of needing it in the future; checking the trash for accidentally discarded objects
- Functional impairments, including loss of living space, social isolation, family or marital discord, financial difficulties, health hazards
- If you or someone you love is exhibiting several of these symptoms, it’s important to seek mental health treatment before the issue becomes worse.
How Hoarding Begins
Often, the first symptoms of hoarding can be seen in adolescence or young adulthood. A young person becomes overly compelled to save things, and his or her living space gradually becomes more cluttered.Eventually, the clutter includes more and more unnecessary or unusable items, and the person saves these items even when there’s no reasonable space to keep them.
According to Mayo Clinic: “By middle age, symptoms are often severe and may be harder to treat. Problems with hoarding gradually develop over time and tend to be a private behavior. Often, significant clutter has developed by the time it reaches the attention of others.”
Researchers haven’t been able to identify a root genetic cause for hoarding behavior, but there are common risk factors that tend to coincide in people with hoarding disorder, including personality type, family history, and specific stressful life events.
How to Stop Hoarding
According to Good Therapy, 15% of hoarders recognize their behavior is irrational. Maybe you’ve noticed that you are irrationally keeping unnecessary items, but your disorder hasn’t become extremely disruptive to your life so far.
Consumerism and advertising can foster the anxiety that underlies hoarding. If you have that tendency already, it usually worsens over time.
Here’s how to get started overcoming hoarding tendencies, based on suggestions from Everyday Health:
- Make immediate decisions about incoming paper. (Keep, file, recycle.)
- Make a rule about new purchases—whether you have to wait a certain time frame before buying, or you need to practice the “one in, one out” rule, etc.
- Spend 15 minutes per day decluttering.
- Use the “one-year” rule to help you decide if you should keep something—if you haven’t used it in a year, it’s time to let it go.
- Try the OHIO rule: “only handle it once.”
- Ask for help.
Maybe you would benefit from professional counseling for hoarding to help you get to the root of your compulsions. In the meantime, consider asking a trusted friend or family member for help going through your things and deciding what’s necessary to keep. Don’t try to overcome this compulsion alone.
If a Loved One Hoards Things
Good Therapy has some suggestions for how to start the process of dealing with a family member, or possibly a friend or roommate, who has a problem with hoarding:
- Don’t take their things. Taking ownership of the clutter might seem like the easiest solution, but it can escalate their anxiety to extreme levels if you unilaterally throw their stuff out. If the hoarded items are impeding your health or safety, it’s crucial to seek professional help to know how to proceed.
- Don’t enable them. This is the flip side of the first suggestion. When someone we love has a problematic mental/behavioral problem, sometimes it can be tempting to slide into codependency and enable their behavior by cleaning up after them, avoiding the situation altogether, or just accepting it as normal. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries. Get help to figure out what that looks like for your situation.
- Learn about the disorder. The more you educate yourself, the more you can respond well.
- Psychology Today emphasizes the importance of being compassionate and understanding. It can be difficult when you’re frustrated, but keep in mind the strength of a compulsion, the anxiety involved, and how a hoarding person often feels like a slave to their fears and compulsions.
- Celebrate small victories. If they’re able to let go of things, this is a huge step for them. Acknowledge that.
- Help them sort if they’re willing, but don’t clean for them.
- Be willing to help them find treatment.
Hoarding disorder is a serious mental health condition that needs professional help. This doesn’t mean that hoarders are crazy or that they need an intervention. It just means that whether they have mild hoarding tendencies or are struggling with a significant buildup of clutter, professional counseling for hoarding can help them address the issue.
Gently confronting the problem of hoarding opens the door to freedom, instead of letting stuff quietly choke the joy and well-being out of your life and relationships.
Contact us today to set up your risk-free initial appointment with a Christian counselor who can help you or your loved one walk through the process of recovery from hoarding.
“Stacks of Books”, Courtesy of Dimitri Houtteman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Moving Day”, Courtesy of HiveBoxx, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Stacks of Newspapers”, Courtesy of Digital Buggu, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Bookseller”, Courtesy of Ichad Windhiagiri, Pexels.com, CC0 License