Hoarding disorder

There’s being sentimental about your stuff, and then there’s hoarding, which is a serious mental health condition. But what is it? And how do you cope with a hoarder?

A young woman talks to her friend and holds her phone
  1. What is hoarding?
  2. Symptoms of a hoarding disorder
  3. What causes hoarding?
  4. Why is hoarding a problem?
  5. How can I stop hoarding?

What is hoarding?

Most people feel attachments to their belongings – but hoarding is holding on to things you don’t need just for the sake of it, and feeling physically unable to get rid of items.

Symptoms of a hoarding disorder

Being a hoarder is quite different from just having a slightly cluttered bedroom. The emotional attachments can steadily take over your life, and can affect relationships with the people you live with. But how can you tell if you have a problem?

  • Do you keep or collect items that have no value (things like junk mail or old carrier bags)?
  • When you try and throw stuff away do you simply move things from one pile to another?
  • Does the idea of someone moving or throwing away your things make you panic?
  • Do you acquire a lot more stuff than you get rid of?
  • Do you find it hard to categorise or organise things in the same way as other people?
  • Are you so attached to items that you find it hard to lend or give away?
  • Does the stuff in your home affect the way you live? For example, do you have to move piles of things to be able to sit on the sofa or enter a room?
  • Do you find it hard to make decisions? Are you embarrassed to have people visit?
  • If you answered yes to most of these questions, then you might be suffering from a hoarding disorder.

What causes hoarding?

There are many reasons that a person might hoard, and it’s completely unique to the individual. With that said, there are a few common reasons that a person might be a hoarder:

Mental health problems

While on the surface hoarding might seem relatively harmless, it can be a symptom of other disorders, such as anxiety and depression. In these cases, hoarding is usually the symptom, but not the route of the problem.

Past trauma

It has also been linked to trauma or a stressful life event, and is thought to be a way of the person taking back control over their life by hoarding items. It might also appear in people who have grown up in poverty.

Family history or habits

Experts believe that hoarding may be something that runs in the family. It could be that the hoarder’s family has a history of one of the other underlying conditions – or it could simply be a habit that a person has grown up with.

Is hoarding the same as OCD?

Though it has been defined as a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in the past (and can still sometimes suggest that a person might have OCD), hoarding is subtly different.

“OCD is different from hoarding because OCD entails thoughts that intrude and distract us from what we’re doing and won’t leave us alone,” says psychiatrist Dr Clive Sherlock. “Hoarding is simply being unable to let items go.”

Studies have shown different brain activity in hoarders and OCD sufferers. Crucially, hoarders show heightened brain activity when asked to make a decision about an item they own. However, both conditions involve anxiety that can stop you living an everyday life.

Why is hoarding a problem?

If you’re a hoarder, it’s likely that you don’t even recognise that you have a problem. It could be that you’ve had it pointed out to you by a friend or a family member – and you might have trouble accepting it.

Not only can this cause tension between you and them, but this can really cause issues with the people you live with for several reasons:

  • The place you live in could become very unhygienic, and a breeding ground for rats and flies
  • They may be embarrassed by your habit, which can be uncomfortable for you whenever they bring it up
  • The items you’re hoarding could possibly be a fire hazard

How can I stop hoarding?

It’s not easy to treat hoarding, even when the hoarder is happy to seek help. But there are ways to keep the most upsetting type of hoarding in check:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps the hoarder understand why it’s hard to throw things away and how to stop the clutter from building
  • In some cases there might be an underlying mental health condition, antidepressants have been known to help
  • A special form of meditation-based behaviour therapy known as Adaptation Practice (AP) is also used to treat hoarding and other associated disorders.
  • For more information, visit www.adaptationpractice.org

What can you do if you’re living with a hoarder?

If you’re living with a family member or a housemate who is a hoarder, it can be really tough to know what to do. There are a few things you could try to make living with someone who hoards a little more comfortable for the both of you.

Talk to them about their hoarding

You might feel anxious about letting them know that you think they might have a problem, and that persuading them to get help or change their behaviour will be an uphill struggle. Despite how difficult it might feel, you’re always best off being honest with them in a sensitive way.

Additional storage

If the person you live with is finding it too difficult to let go of items, it might be worth investing in some additional storage until they feel able to. It might also help to set some “rules” for how the storage space will be used. Check in with them from time to time to check that you’re both still; on the same page.

Agree on cleaning

Sometimes a person who hoards might find cleaning anything incredibly difficult – and this goes for tidying communal areas such as the kitchen. If this is the case, you could organise some time each week when you can clean without being interrupted – that way, you’ll stop any unnecessary dirt and grime building up over time.

Setting boundaries

If you have your own room, it’s worth making clear boundaries about what items you have in there, who goes in there, and how (and by whom) it’s cleaned.
If things have got impossible to live with, call Environmental Health or the council to clear things out. It’s a short-term remedy but gives you space when things have got ridiculous. However, be warned this can be extremely distressing for the hoarder and won’t fix their issues in the long-term.

If things persist, it’s worth talking to your GP about what can be done, both about their mental health, and yours.

If you need support with hoarding disorder

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Next Steps

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hoarding| OCD

By Holly Turner

Updated on 29-Oct-2020