The Psychology of Hoarding

Hoarding is defined by Mayo Clinic as, “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” Over time, the house of a hoarder becomes fully packed with belongings. Items are stacked from the floor to the ceiling, there are only narrow areas of empty space used as walkways, and in some cases, even the toaster oven or kitchen cabinets can be filled with possessions. 

How does this happen? Why don’t people just throw some of their stuff away? The reason is that to a hoarder, the idea of throwing away possessions is emotionally painful. This can be hard for friends and families to understand. 

They wonder why a hoarder cannot just spend a few days sorting out what’s valuable and what’s not. People who do not suffer from the disorder can mistakenly attribute the mass accumulation of things as an issue stemming from laziness. 

Consequently, they may try to motivate the hoarder to get organized or offer to come over and help clean up. Psychological research tells us that it’s not that simple.

For those suffering from hoarding disorder, all possessions are precious and have value. Julie Pike, Ph.D. specializes in treating hoarding disorder and told the American Psychological Association that brain scans have indicated that when hoarders receive a new item, their brains light up on the computer. This response means that they experience a rush of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that makes us feel happy, simply by receiving a new possession.

When every item is found to be extremely valuable, losing any item is a painful experience. Think about it like this; imagine right before your grandmother passed, she gave you a gift. Could you fathom the idea of voluntarily throwing it away? Of course not. It holds sentimental value to you. You have a connection with this item.

When trying to understand the mind of a hoarder, it’s important to recognize that all of their belongings hold an emotional connection. Furthermore, some hoarders can even view their possessions as an extension of themselves. They feel a genuine attachment to their things. Being surrounded by things makes them feel good. Some hoarders have said that they feel empty when they’re in empty rooms. They feel alone. 

While there’s not a clear-cut, one size fits all reason for why people feel this way, researchers have developed a list of the most common explanations. 

One of the biggest is genetics. In fact, 80% of hoarders have a first degree relative who also suffers from the disorder. Researchers suspect it has something to do with the chromosomal component of chromosome fourteen. This chromosome impacts concentration and is associated with anxiety and depression. Many hoarders struggle to think linearly.

Additionally, hoarding disorder is often accompanied by other disorders. Hoarders can also suffer from ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Some have experienced past trauma, like the death of a loved one or the loss of everything they owned in a fire. 

Their things provide them with a sense of comfort. Coming home to a room full of things can make other problems seem a little more bearable. 

For this reason, removing a hoarder’s things from their home without their consent can strain relationships. As with any disorder, the first steps in recovery are accepting that there is a problem and having the will to get help. Nicola Davis, Ph.D. explains that less than half of those suffering from hoarding disorder seek out treatment, and over half of those drop out of treatment before it is effective. 

Treating hoarding disorder is a process. It should be viewed in the same light as treating any other psychological disorder, patiently and with steady support.

With that, we understand hoarding disorder can cause a lot of stress, confusion, and an overall sense of being overwhelmed. That’s why we aim to lend a helping hand when it’s needed most. If you’re unsure how to tackle the problems arising from hoarding disorder, don’t hesitate to give us a call. Our contact information can be found here, and we’re more than happy to help.