There’s nothing very unusual about clutter. Many homes have it. But if it becomes difficult to move around your living space because of the accumulated piles or growing number of possessions in one or more areas in your home, you may have a hoarding disorder.
What Is Hoarding Disorder?
Hoarding disorder is also called compulsive hoarding. Hoarding disorder is a clinically recognized mental illness. You have hoarding disorder if you have persistent difficulty discarding possessions because of a perceived need to save them. You don’t care if the items have value or not.
People with hoarding disorder have an excessive need to acquire new items and keep old ones that are potentially broken or do not hold value. Hoarding causes clinically significant distress when you try to let go of these items.
Hoarding behavior can start at a young age and tends to become severe and more distinct as you get older. Hoarding disorder is more common in people over 60 years old. It is also common among those with psychiatric diagnoses like anxiety and depression.
Hoarding vs. Collecting
Collecting and hoarding are very different from each other. Collectors acquire possessions with intent. They organize their possessions in an orderly fashion to be displayed for admiration. Collectors also acquire items with a consistent theme.
Hoarders, on the other hand, tend to make impulse decisions when selecting items to store in their homes. They are triggered by the desire to own an object that catches their attention. They also acquire random items without a consistent theme.
The biggest contrast one can notice between a collector and a hoarder is the presentation and organization of acquired possessions. A collector is organized, while a hoarder is best represented with messy clutter.
Living with Hoarding Disorder
People with hoarding disorder are very much overwhelmed by the volume of possessions they can’t let go of. The clutter limits their livable space at home and may also lead to family disputes.
It is very common for many to be sentimental and hold on to certain belongings. However, hoarders tend to put meaning to every single possession they have. Some hoarders may assign more than one meaning for each object to some degree. Because of this, they are unable to rightfully manage the associations they have attached to each item.
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Characteristics of Hoarding Disorder
There are three major characteristics of hoarding disorder: the difficulty of parting with material possessions, the excessive and compulsive acquisition of new possessions, and the inability to avoid clutter.
Hoarders are extremely disorganized, as they are prone to leaving random stuff anywhere in the house.
Causes of Hoarding Disorder
The cause of hoarding disorder is still unknown. However, some studies indicate hoarding disorder can run in the family. If you have a family member who has hoarding issues, you can most likely have these issues, too.
Extreme stress in life and the death of a loved one can make your symptoms worse. People with hoarding disorder hold on to their possessions for the following reasons:
- They think the items are unique and rare that they can be used in the future.
- They attach emotional significance to their possession. These items remind them of happy memories, beloved pets, or loved ones.
- They feel secure when these possessions surround them.
Signs You May Have Hoarding Disorder
The signs and symptoms of hoarding appear similar across cultures and races. Both men and women have the tendency to hoard. Hoarders may also be perfectionists and procrastinators.
Hoarding can cause serious problems in your social relationships. It can also be problematic in maintaining a safe and healthy environment for others.
Some of the biggest telltale signs of a hoarding disorder are:
- Excessive acquisition of unnecessary items
- Persistent difficulty with discarding possessions regardless of their value
- Perceived need to save such items and feeling upset at the thought of parting with the object
- Unusable active living spaces in their home due to clutter
Here are some assessment questions to help you see if you have a hoarding disorder:
- Are you having a hard time discarding, recycling, donating, or selling your possessions?
- Due to so much clutter, how difficult is it for you to use the rooms in your home?
- How does hoarding stuff affect your daily activities?
- How distressed are you because of the symptoms?
The risk factors for hoarding disorder are:
- Indecisiveness. Individuals with hoarding disorder can be fickle or have difficulty making decisions.
- Family history. Hoarding disorder can run in the family. A person may have grown up in an environment where their parents constantly told them they didn’t have enough of something or many things. That’s one reason the hoarding disorder may be a passed-on trait in the family.
- Stressful life event. When a person is going through a difficult time or is experiencing severe stress, they may develop a hoarding disorder. Stressful life events could be the death of a loved one, divorce, or losing your job, your home, or all your possession due to fire or a calamity.
Examples of Hoarders
A hoarder’s excessive need to acquire possessions should be carefully monitored. Listed below are some of the most common types of hoarders.
1. Animal Hoarder
Animal hoarders adopt or purchase a large number of animals. In animal hoarding situations, animals may be confined in a smaller living space than would be appropriate for the number of pets. The living conditions might be unsuitable to both the animals and human cohabitants due to large amounts of animal dirt in the area.
2. Compulsive Shopper
A compulsive shopper loves shopping and buying unnecessary things. Compulsive shoppers and hoarders buy new clothes or shoes without even the thought of using them. They end up buying new clothes without even using the recent clothes they just purchased.
3. Object Hoarder
An object hoarder is interested in a particular item to hoard. These could range from paper, books, houseware, clothes, or even garbage.
Consequences of Hoarding Disorder
Having a hoarding disorder may cause problems in your relationships. Serious hoarding can have potential consequences on your and your housemates’ health and safety. Such concerns include fire hazards, increased home accident risks, and health code violations.
A hoarding disorder can cause strain and conflicts within the family. Because of the unsightly clutter in your home, you may feel isolated, lonely, and unwilling to accept guests. You may also be unable to perform usual house chores like cooking and bathing.
Items needlessly pile up because hoarders refuse to discard their possessions. There could also be a buildup of trash that is very unsanitary. The hoarder’s disordered surrounding is often a reflection of disorganized cognitive functioning. Studies have shown that people with hoarding disorder lack sustained attention, problem-solving skills, organization, and can have difficulty remembering day-to-day tasks.
Hoarders also have low visuospatial ability. People with hoarding disorder may have difficulties making detailed decisions determining what items are of importance, as hoarders believe that every single clutter is important.
Public Health Concerns
Hoarding is also considered a public health issue. Due to too much clutter, homes of hoarders can be a breeding ground for pests. Pest management may be very difficult in these situations.
Individuals with hoarding behaviors tend to isolate themselves from everyone. Their doors and windows are often blocked, and hallways are impassable. This situation can make it very hard for firefighters if a fire breaks out.
There are some cities that have organized task forces focusing on this issue. It is not surprising that hoarders may avoid the help of the task force. They may not understand that the task force’s goal is not to stop them from hoarding. Rather, they are tasked to keep homes safe.
Other Mental Health Disorders and Hoarding Disorder
Some hoarders can have other mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or alcohol use disorder. Roughly about half of people with hoarding disorder also have a comorbid disorder.
Hoarding disorder is recognizable from other mental disorders because it requires community intervention, like the help of family and friends.
Classification of Hoarding Disorder in Mental Disorders
In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) gave diagnostic criteria for hoarding disorder. These criteria have enabled mental health professionals to see how common the problem is.
Since having criteria of its own, the American Psychiatric Association reported that about 2.5% of the general population have hoarding disorder. Hoarding disorder was previously considered a subset of OCD.
Mental Health Professionals and Hoarding Disorder
Some people are aware and acknowledge that they might have a hoarding disorder. Some would likely visit a professional to be properly diagnosed, while some might not realize it.
If the patient is unaware that they have a hoarding disorder, family members or friends could encourage them to approach a mental health professional who, with permission, can ask the hoarder’s family and friends some questions. These questions are designed to assess the hoarder’s level of functioning.
Treatments for Hoarding Disorder
Hoarding disorder is a complex mental health disorder. It is often a hard-to-treat case, but many psychologists have been making progress.
Many mental health professionals now have a better understanding of the disorder’s cognitive and neural foundations. They recognize that the treatment goal for hoarding disorder is to reduce the acquisition of clutter in your home.
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered an effective treatment for hoarding disorder. With the help of CBT, you learn to let go of unnecessary possessions gradually.
CBT can help you change your beliefs about hoarding. You can also learn how to organize your things. Additionally, CBT can help improve your decision-making skills and relaxation techniques.
Hoarders who have undergone CBT showed a decrease in hoarding symptoms. It positively impacted their discarding behavior, though there are still some who retained their hoarding behaviors even after treatment.
There are studies that show CBT may not be fully effective in treating hoarding disorder. However, CBT is effective in treating related disorders such as anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder. CBT may not be the best option for some, as it is often more helpful to young hoarders but not so much to older ones.
According to Dr. Ayers, who studies hoarding symptoms and behavior in adults, hoarding is common and often progresses in older people. Dr. Ayers also developed a hoarding disorder treatment plan for older people based on cognitive rehabilitation. This was modeled after the intervention plan for a traumatic brain injury.
Dr. Ayers teaches hoarders how to organize, plan, and solve problems. They learn how to let go of their material possessions one by one. By doing this, older hoarders eventually tolerate the distressing feeling of discarding some of their possessions.
Therapists practicing CBT have noted great improvement in their patients, like reductions in compulsive hoarding symptoms. More improvements are observed even after 6 months during follow-up sessions.
2. Motivational Interviewing
Motivational interviewing is a method typically used for addiction therapy. This method, when used in treating hoarding disorder, can also be beneficial. This is approach is employed when the hoarder’s insight is poor and is hesitant to change.
There are limited studies done on drug treatments for hoarding disorder. There are also only a few case studies done to support the efficacy of certain medications. It is always best to ask a mental health professional regarding converns about medication.
Many people know they need to seek professional help right away if they’re experiencing debilitating depression. Treating hoarding disorder is difficult because hoarders don’t feel sad or depressed. On the contrary, they feel happy about buying new stuff.
Hoarders only feel distressed when people ask them to get rid of their stuff. Researchers are studying if it is possible to include decluttering training as part of treatment.
Coping with Hoarding Disorder
There are coping strategies you can use aside from seeking counseling services and medical treatment for hoarding disorder. These coping strategies can help manage your hoarding symptoms and improve your mental health.
1. Seek Emotional Support
Social isolation is common with hoarders. Being socially isolated makes it very difficult for you to reach out for help and support. If you are uncomfortable meeting people inside your home, you can decide to meet elsewhere.
Talk to someone you trust. Talking to another person can relieve you of stress and help you feel better. Engaging in a conversation with another person can help you manage the anxiety that comes with hoarding disorder.
2. Develop Self-Care Practices
It is important that you have healthy eating habits. Good hygiene is also crucial. Clearing your kitchen, dining room, and bathroom is an extension of self-care. Self-care can be hard, but it is possible and doable.
Being able to take care of yourself more will make you happier and would encourage you to always keep your home clutter-free.
3. Take It One Step at a Time
Letting go of your possessions can be very difficult. This is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. But progress and recovery are possible if you take it one step at a time.
If everything feels very overwhelming, you can break down your big goals into smaller ones that you can easily accomplish. Feeling a sense of accomplishment can make you feel better and happier.
4. Approach Others for Help with Decluttering
Decluttering and organizing your home alone can be very difficult and overwhelming. Ask for help when you need it. Call your friends or loved ones to help you out. You also have the option to hire professional cleaning services.
5. Seek Professional Counseling Services
A professional counselor or therapist can be instrumental in treating hoarding disorder as well as any co-occurring diagnoses. Kentucky Counseling Center offers online, telehealth counseling services in the state of Kentucky. If you are living in Lexington, Louisville, or any surrounding city in the state, you may fill out our form to book an appointment with a therapist to discuss your hoarding disorder concerns or to seek help for a loved one suffering from mental and emotional effects of this disorder.
Hoarding disorder is a complex mental illness. You don’t have to feel the burden alone. Treatment and support are available to help you get better. Kentucky Counseling Center (KCC) and our team of therapists and counselors are highly skilled and knowledgeable in treating and managing hoarding disorder.
Having a hoarding disorder may cause problems in your relationships. Serious hoarding can have potential consequences on health and safety concerns. Such concerns include fire hazards, tripping hazards, and health code violations.