The Psychology Behind Hoarding

When does cluttered turn to hoarding?

Posted Sep 05, 2014


A pile of hoarded clutter
Recently, the phenomenon known as hoarding has come into greater public awareness, propelled by graphic scenes on television showing homes crammed floor-to-ceiling with an astonishing amount of stuff. A&E’s Hoarders is now in its 6th season, proving not only that hoarding is a relatively widespread affliction, but that the American public is mesmerized and fascinated by the disorder.  In fact, the International OCD Foundation estimates that one in every 50 people struggle with severe hoarding.

Shocking visuals on programs such as Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive show safety personnel in hazmat suits scoping out all manner of refuse and garbage, while the distraught hoarder pleads that every last bit of it is necessary. At times, a home is filled with so many pets that they have become unclean, uncared for, and often ill. Their compulsive hoarding causes their mental, emotional, physical, and financial health to dwindle. And most tragically, the hoarders’ relationships unravel as their families and friends struggle to cope.

Hoarding is considered an offshoot of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but recently this categorization is being reevaluated. It’s estimated that about one in four people with OCD also are compulsive hoarders. It is possible that some time in the future hoarding will become its own distinct category. In the meantime, it’s very real, and more and more people are opening up about the difficulty hoarding presents in their lives.

Without exception, hoarding is always accompanied by varying levels of anxiety and sometime develops alongside other mental illnesses such as dementia and schizophrenia. Recent neuroimaging reveals peculiar commonalities among hoarders including severe emotional attachment to inanimate objects and extreme anxiety when making decisions.

Hoarding both relieves anxiety and produces it. The more hoarders accumulate, the more insulated they feel from the world and its dangers. Of course, the more they accumulate, the more isolated they become from the world, including family and friends. Even the thought of discarding or cleaning out hoarded items produces extreme feelings of panic and discomfort.

It can be difficult to determine whether someone is a hoarder or just a pack rat, someone who just likes to hang on to things. The main determiner of whether a behavior is just a personal preference or a disorder usually has to do with whether or not, and how much, that behavior has begun to negatively impact daily functioning. Here are generally recognized symptoms of hoarding from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Cluttered living spaces
  • Inability to discard items
  • Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines, or junk mail
  • Moving items from one pile to another without discarding anything
  • Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, including trash
  • Difficulty managing daily activities, procrastinating and trouble making decisions
  • Difficulty organizing items
  • Perfectionism
  • Excessive attachment to possessions and discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions
  • Limited or no social interactions

But what causes someone to become a hoarder? How can a packrat escalate to hoarder at such a severe magnitude? According to the Mayo Clinic, at this time there is not clear what exactly causes hoarding. There are, however, some commonalities among hoarders. 

  • Age: While severe hoarding is most common in middle-aged adults around the age of 50, their hoarding tendencies began around ages 11 to 15. During these early teenage years, they typically saved broken toys, outdated school papers, and pencil nubs.
  • Personality: Oftentimes hoarders struggle with severe indecisiveness and anxiety.
  • Genetics: Although hoarding is not an entirely genetic disorder, there is some genetic predisposition involved in the disorder.
  • Trauma: Many hoarders experienced a stressful or traumatic event that propels them to hoard has a coping mechanism.
  • Social Isolation: Hoarders are often socially withdrawn and isolated, causing them to hoard as a way to find comfort.

Researchers, doctors and psychologists continue to search for effective treatments for hoarding, and Americans continue to observe the accumulation on the TV screen. When a world is awash in anxiety, worry, and fear, and when accumulating things becomes a way to deflect and manage those feelings, the stack will keep getting bigger and bigger.


Gregory L. Jantz, PhD is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and an internationally recognized best selling author of 28 books related to mental wellness and holistic recovery treatment. 

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