Psychology of hoarding: From collecting to being buried alive
Hoarding is classified as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder; however, emerging evidence and research suggests it may be a mental condition on its own.
According to a report from Discovery Magazine, hoarding has a unique signature within the circuitry of the brain. Instead of a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, which is in turn an anxiety disorder, hoarding is thought to be a natural human instinct gone unregulated.
“Hoarding is a compulsive tendency to acquire and hold onto things, usually that one doesn’t need and doesn’t use,” F. Diane Barth, psychotherapist in private practice in NYC, told us. “It becomes pathological when the things one has hoarded take up room in one’s living space, filling up closets and covering floors, walls or furniture. Severe hoarding makes it hard for a person to carry out normal activities of daily living.”
From collecting to hoarding
According to Barth, hoarding is collecting “gone wild.” Often, hoarders don’t know what they have in their piles of things; they may buy several versions of the same item because they have no idea where the original version is, she explained.
Hoarders also often don’t use most of what they buy or collect. Unlike most collectors, they aren’t proud of what they’ve collected and have no interest in showing it to other people. In fact, hoarders are often embarrassed by or ashamed of their hoarding issues.
“Many hoarders like to think of themselves as collectors,” said Travis Osborne, a Seattle psychologist who treats hoarding and has made appearances on The Learning Channels Hoarding: Buried Alive, in a University of Washington guest lecture. “But collectors take pride in their possessions, whereas hoarders feel shame when other people see all of the stuff that they have in their homes.”
Signs of hoarding
Approximately 2.5 to 5 percent of the population in the United States is affected by a hoarding disorder, and few hoarders ever seek out treatment for their condition.
Barth tells us there are varying degrees of hoarding, and Osborne notes studies suggest more men than women hoard. The condition also seems to be more prevalent in older adults.
“…There are people who hold onto things because they have meaning — like clothing that belonged to a parent who has died — but who have not covered their entire home with their mother’s belongings; there are people whose collections, for example, books or clothes, have gotten out of control, but who are still able to live normally in their homes,” said Barth. ”And then there are people who save everything — newspapers, books, boxes and so on — whose homes are running over with stuff, so that they can barely find space to sit on a chair, sleep on their bed or cook in their kitchen, and who can’t explain why they are holding onto these things but can’t separate from them.”
Common warning signs of hoarding, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:
- Inability or unwillingness to discard items
- Moving items from one area to another without discarding them
- Keeping stacks of paper
- Keeping useless items such as napkins or trash
- Trouble making decisions
- Lack of organization
- Excessive attachment to items
- Shame or embarrassment attached to collected items
- Limited social interaction
What items are commonly hoarded?
“Hoarding almost always starts in childhood, where they have a really hard time getting rid of things,” Osborn said in his lecture. “If there are parents or other people in the house getting rid of things, stuff doesn’t build up as much until they live on their own.”
Items commonly hoarded, according to Harvard Medical School, include:
While television has increased the awareness of animal hoarding, experts say it is actually quite rare. Any item can be hoarded; it all depends on the individual and the emotional and mental attachment to a specific thing.
Can hoarders recover?
Cognitive behavior therapy currently shows a lot of promise in patients with hoarding issues. The method of therapy uses a trained professional to help hoarders learn to dispose of items gradually, eventually leaving them to do so on their own. Hoarders are taught to modify their thought patterns, questioning why they are keeping a particular item. Eventually, individuals are weaned off of the impulse to acquire new items.