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Symptoms of Compulsive Hoarding

Updated on June 21, 2018
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Nancy worked as a social worker for 23 years. She now draws upon that experience to comprehensively explain different disorders.


Definition of Hoarding

Many of us have watched the popular TV show Hoarding: Buried Alive,

but beyond the shock drama, we probably have not been in direct contact with a hoarder. But some of us have, whether it be in our own town or a family member. How do we know if someone is a hoarder? What is good hoarding definition?

By definition, hoarding is the extreme need to obtain items without the ability to let them go. Hoarding creates clutter in homes, that is often literally up to the ceiling, creating fire and health hazards. In some types of hoarding, they cannot say no to say no to stray animals, thus, having dozens of pets in their home without adequate facilities or resources to care for them.

Compulsive hoarding which is the subject of this article, may be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) but does not have to be. Hoarders usually do not see it as a problem. It is family and friends who recognize the dangers of unsanitary living conditions and fire code violations.

Example of a collection just sitting in a box and not displayed.
Example of a collection just sitting in a box and not displayed. | Source

Do You Know a Hoarder?

See results

What is a Hoarder?

Today the definition of hoarding is being over used.

We may have a friend who has an messy home or an employee who saves every file on their desk. Is that displaying hoarding behavior? No, probably not. Answer these questions to gain a better understanding.

  • Do you have a collection? For example, you may have a collection of Star Wars Toys. Are the toys piled to the ceiling in every room of the house? If not or if the collection just over runs a spare bedroom, you would not be considered one.
  • What happens when you run out of storage space? If you simply clean out the closet and get rid of the things you are not using, you do not have a hoarding problem. But if you start storing items in the hallways and stacking them on top of each other, and have no idea how to stop hoarding, you might have hoarding issues.
  • Have you drained your financial resources paying for objects that just sit in your home, often still in the boxes? Do you continue to shop when you have no money left money left from your paycheck? If yes, you may be in the beginning of hoarding.
  • Do you find yourself continually sneaking items into your house and hiding them? This is a sign of hoarding.
  • Do you rent a storage unit or several storage units without the families knowledge? This means you have a hoarding problem.
  • Are all your pets well-fed and visit the veterinarian regularly? Do you clean and dispose of their waste products? If you answer yes you may be experiencing hoarding issues.
  • What happens when you junk mail piles up? Are you able to throw it out? Do you understand some up it will not help you or is the concept of throwing out something important frightening to you?

Example of a hoarders home when many items start to pile up over the years. Often they cannot make decisions about what to throw away.
Example of a hoarders home when many items start to pile up over the years. Often they cannot make decisions about what to throw away. | Source

What Causes Hoarding?

The causes of hoarding are outlined below.

They may have difficulty in the following areas which causes their behavior:

  • Compulsive hoarders often have problems with basic organizational skills. It is very difficult for them to categorize items. They have major difficulty deciding what is valuable and what is worthless. The lines are very blurred, therefore they cannot decide what to do with possessions. They may have memory difficulties causing them to forget where items belong; so as a coping mechanism, they keep items in view.
  • People with compulsive hoarding have attachment issues. The have actual emotional feelings about the items that the accumulate. In other words, they are very dear to them and make them feel special. Because of these special feeling, there is a need to stay in control of the items so the idea of someone touching their stuff is very traumatic.
  • People with compulsive hoarding disorder experience actual distress when faced with getting rid of items. They are overwhelmed by the whole decision making process of letting things go. Saving the item allows them to avoid making the decision.
  • Compulsive hoarders see something that they want and think they can't feel better until they have it. .

Hoarding Behavior

Hoarders feel like they must save items. Often the collections of things are worthless to you and I. They will sometimes purchase used items at a thrift store or pick up things that people have left out on garbage day. Much time will be spent on moving items in the home around in order to fit more stuff in the living space. This consumes their time, so they often become anti-social. Sometimes well-meaning family and friends become preoccupied with fixing the compulsive hoarder; they become the enemy in their mind. A compulsive hoarder will feel a need to defend their belongings or fortress.

Saving old newspapers is a typical hoarding behavior.
Saving old newspapers is a typical hoarding behavior. | Source

Symptoms of Hoarding

The hoarder's need to acquire and keep objects, stems from their feelings and thoughts and are manifested through their behaviors. Typical hoarding symptoms are listed below:

  • A compulsive hoarder cannot discard items. They do not have the ability to decide which items to discard. Even with presented with basic logic of, "I will not need yesterday's newspaper", in the hoarder's mind, they might use it.
  • The compulsive hoarder spends much time in acquiring items. This may be anywhere from shopping online to attending garage sales or even sifting through piles of trash. They have a need to find that one treasure.
  • Hoarders are known for keeping old newspapers, magazines and junk mail. They simply may not have the capacity to know what can be thrown away.
  • Saving used garbage such as food containers and the boxes items come in can be habitual to the compulsive hoarder. They may come in handy some day.
  • A compulsive hoarder has a very messy living space because of the need to keep everything accessible in case it is needed.
  • Because of the disarray of the home. Independent living skills become virtually impossible. This negatively impact personal hygiene, proper nutrition, and physical health.
  • Hoarders are masters of waiting for tomorrow. Tomorrow they will clean up or stop buying unwanted items.
  • Hoarders have trouble making decisions. They honestly do not know what to throw out or the thought process behind it.
  • Hoarders are perfectionists. Sometimes spending hours on their piles making them fit or placing things in tidy little cubbyholes for easy access.
  • They have difficulty organizing items so they become overwhelmed and quit trying.
  • The hoarder connects to possessions while he slowly disconnects with people. Maybe people are not so nice to him and inanimate objects cannot talk back. Sometimes the world of a hoarder can be lonely by choice.
  • As the owner of items, the compulsive hoarder feel that he must protect his items. Not wanting them to be used or touched is very common.

If you know a person has some or most of these traits, please encourage them to get professional help.

There is Help for Hoarders!

Before and after pictures of a hoarder that successfully received treatment.
Before and after pictures of a hoarder that successfully received treatment. | Source

Hoarding Disorder Treatment

The treatment of compulsive hoarding is difficult, to say the very least. First and foremost, compulsive hoarders usually to not see themselves as having a problem and are not able to see its impact on their life, thus it is very difficult to know how to help a hoarder. And they cannot see how it is affecting their families whether they reside with them or not. Their possessions, collections or animals are providing them with comfort on some level. And if these things are taken away, they will often scurry to get more.

Often the compulsive hoarder will not seek treatment. And when they finally do, it is because of some impending doom. The fire marshal has ordered a clean up or a landlord is threatening eviction. In these cases, treatment is usually rushed or only sought as a temporary solution. Not to be negative, but many hoarders go back to the old behaviors after the emergency has ceased.

The best advice is to seek an experienced mental health provider who is equipped to provide a an appropriate hoarders treatment plan.

A Success Story

How to Overcome Hoarding

Most mental health professionals treat hoarders with cognitive behavior therapy. In this kind of therapy, the hoarder is encouraged to work on the following issues:

  • Discovery of why you feel the need to have so many items.
  • Oraganizing and placing your things in categories which ultimately leads to help you let go of some.
  • Work on your decision making. Provide concrete guidance on how to make good decisions along with learning the consequences of poor choices.
  • Physical on-site visits to the home by the therapist with reachable goals to make it habitable.
  • Learn new relaxation techniques to form better coping mechanisms.
  • Go to and participate in group or family therapy and outings. Learn to address these issues.
  • Educate yourself on the benefits of psychiatric hospitalization. Only encouraged in severe cases.
  • Having followup visits with your mental heath worker to maintain the healthy habits you have learned about overcoming hoarding.

In some cases antidepressants are prescribed but not all people are helped by this type of treatment.

Animal Hoarding
Animal Hoarding | Source


I have to confess this was a very uncomfortable article to write and research. In my job as a social worker, I did experience the homes of hoarders and homes with unsanitary conditions. It is my highest hope that after reading this article, you start to humanize these people in society and treat them with the decency and respect. Remember, the neighborhood cat lady is a person too.

Hoarding Treatment Centers

112 Water Street, Suite 501 Boston, MA 02109:
112 Water St #501, Boston, MA 02109, USA

get directions

The International OCD Foundation, Inc. is a non-profit organization providing information and services about hoarding.


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