What is Hoarding?

By The Fix staff 07/21/14
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Hoarding is a disorder that by various estimates affects somewhere between 2% and 5% of the U.S. population, a number hard to pin down as it occurs so privately. It is characterized by excessively collecting objects - or animals - and by a marked and often overwhelming anxiety over organizing or discarding items.

Hoarders are usually smart, inquisitive people who nevertheless have difficulty letting go of items that are no longer useful, even when surrounded by unsafe levels of clutter and disorganization.  

Experts divide hoarders into two distinct types: object hoarders and animal hoarders. Studies have found that both types suffer deficits in attention and focus, in information processing, in categorization and in decision-making. 

Many people who hoard believe they can discard items with no problems, but the process takes so much time, they often give up after shuffling possessions around and becoming frustrated with their lack of progress. This causes growing piles to amass into large stacks of clutter and trash that then become too much for hoarders to handle, so they ignore the problem rather than complete the task. 

Hoarders tend to arrange their belongings by signs and space instead of a system of categorization, as most non-hoarders do, which makes things difficult to find in the accumulation. This is the difference between someone who collects things – like model airplanes or stamps – and someone who hoards. Collectors proudly display their possessions in an organized and thoughtful manner to show others. Hoarders become anxious when having to organize their abundant acquisitions. 

Animal hoarders are similar to object hoarders with some slight variations. Both types of hoarders justify living in messy spaces, but animal hoarders are not attracted to shiny objects or to great values. Instead, they connect with the sentimental aspect of acquiring and caring for animals and are pleased by healing or saving an animal. This feeling often causes them to ignore the devastating effects of having too many pets. 

What Is the Cause of Hoarding? 

There’s no specific cause of hoarding, although research indicates hoarding occurs most often among people raised in a household of hoarders. The disorder can take root as early as the teen years or as late as the fifties or sixties. It is most prevalent among the middle-aged and senior age groups. 

One government study suggests hoarding can be linked to genetics, narrowing the link to a region of chromosomes shared in a family. Brain injuries also have triggered hoarding symptoms in some patients, as have traumatic life events like the death of a loved one. 

How do Hoarders Justify Behaviors?

People hoard animals and objects because they enjoy the high of feeling good about the acquisition, but that eventually fades to the low of having to deal with a disorganized mess that causes anxiety. Object hoarders often acquire random items simply because they enjoy their aesthetic appeal or for their seemingly “great value,” and the feelings the hoarders experience at first are so pleasant and all-consuming that any potential negatives associated with the acquisition are blocked.

When forced to deal with the idea of getting rid of an item, hoarders’ thoughts are focused on what they will lose or how bad they will feel, ignoring the positive aspects of no longer having the object while projecting anxiety onto the future. Putting off the decision allows them to save the item and avoid what they view as an impossibly difficult task. 

Many object hoarders cite common objections when confronted with the possibility of discarding or donating acquisitions. The four most frequent objections involve:

    • Not wanting to waste things of value.
    • Fear of losing important information, as in the case of books or magazines.
    • Emotional attachment to an item due to sentimental value.
    • Being attracted to an item’s aesthetic appeal. 

Object hoarders convince themselves they can use an item in the future or keep it in case a friend or family member needs it. Items such as clothes, tools and furniture commonly fall into this category. And since hoarders have difficulty organizing and processing information, they justify keeping books and newspapers so they will have the information readily available in case they forget something important. Estimates show about half of all hoarders excessively accumulate free items, as well. 

Hoarders who have lost loved ones struggle with giving up certain items like cards and letters because the sentimental value of the memory is all they have left of the deceased. They feel if they relinquish the item, they’ll lose part of themselves and the deceased friend or family member. 

Finally, many artists and crafts people who hoard items are attracted to the aesthetic appeal of objects and justify keeping useless items for creative projects. Frequently projects are never completed because hoarders can’t decide on an object as they sift through supplies, so they give up and abandon the project altogether.  

How Does Hoarding Affect Living Conditions? 

Object and animal hoarders frequently live in cluttered or dysfunctional home environments that are unsanitary, unsafe or both. Many hoarders tolerate broken appliances and live without heat, air conditioning or other necessities because they’re too ashamed to allow someone into their home to fix the issue. 

One of the biggest challenges for hoarders is managing relationships with people close to them. Hoarding often causes anger, resentment and depression – not just within the hoarder but also for immediate family members and close friends. It’s also been known to affect social development in young children. The friction in personal relationships can lead to the dissolution of partnerships and marriage, as well as to eviction and loss of child custody. 

Hoarding also causes serious financial problems. When the pressure of mounting bills and clutter takes hold of hoarders, they become extremely agitated. Their way of dealing with the stress is pushing it off to a later time, but that time often never comes. Financial information gets lost among the clutter or the anxiety becomes unbearable for hoarders, so they ignore the issue completely. 

Animal hoarders deal with many of the same living conditions as object hoarders with a few additions. Their homes are usually riddled with animal waste, which causes them to suffer from additional health problems created by ammonia, fleas, ticks and illnesses that come from animals. The animals suffer in these conditions as well. They become stressed by frequent fights over food, living space and mating in crowded conditions. 

Warning Signs / Symptoms

Whether a hoarder is 15 or 50, the warning signs are generally the same. The most common include: 

    • Severe anxiety when trying to discard possessions.
    • Embarrassment regarding the volume of possessions that have taken over the house or workspace.
    • Suspicion of other people touching their belongings.
    • Compulsive need to check the trash for accidentally discarded objects.
    • Denial of unhealthy living conditions.
    • Inability to stop taking free items such as advertising fliers or ketchup packets from restaurants. 
    • Isolation from family members and friends because they’re ashamed for others to see their living conditions. 
    • Losing important items such as money or bills in the clutter. 
    • Lashing out at those who try to discard their belongings.
    • Animal hoarders exhibit most of the signs above, as well as:
    • Trolling pet rescue Internet sites for animals to save. 
    • Visiting pet shelters on euthanasia days.
    • Searching alleys for stray animals.

 

Other Long-Term Effects 

Because most hoarders live with varying degrees of the condition for most of their lives, many long-term effects develop over the course of the disease. Because of the accumulation of objects and floor-to-ceiling piles of belongings, hoarders often experience many physical threats to their well-being, which include:

    • Items catching on fire.
    • Injury from falling objects.
    • Disease from living in unsanitary conditions.
    • Malnutrition from the inability to prepare food.

Many hoarders develop depression because they have isolated themselves from others or their family members have abandoned them because they can’t handle the emotional trauma or conditions hoarders normally find themselves living in. 

Coexisting Medical Conditions

Hoarding may be present on its own or as a symptom of another disorder, but it is mostly commonly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder and depression. Hoarders also occasionally develop psychosis or an eating disorder called pica, which is the consumption of non-food materials. 

Experts estimate as many as one in four people with OCD are also compulsive hoarders and approximately one in five compulsive hoarders exhibit non-hoarding OCD symptoms like compulsive washing or checking. When obsessive-compulsive behaviors are present, according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, a patient should be diagnosed with OCD and not hoarding. 

Some major differences between OCD and hoarding include:

HOARDING OCD
1. Initial possession acquisition creates euphoria. Initial obsessive thoughts/actions cause anxiety.
2. No ritualistic behaviors. Compulsive behaviors like washing, checking.
3. Passive behavior ignores the issue causing anxiety.

Active behavior attempts to eliminate unwanted thoughts/feelings.

4. Anxiety manifests through guilt, anger and grief. Anxiety manifests mostly through guilt.
5. Hoarders consider their behaviors normal. OCD patients acknowledge their “unusual” behaviors.

 

Treatment 

As experts conduct more studies on hoarding and treat the condition, it’s become clear that the most effective method for helping hoarders involves intervention. Medicine alone has not eliminated hoarding – it’s only helped reduce symptoms and treat conditions such as depression and anxiety that make hoarding worse. 

An important part of treatment usually begins with challenging a hoarder’s thoughts about their need to retain old items or continue purchasing new ones. Involving a therapist or coach to help remove clutter from the home – first by practicing, then by actually doing it – starts the hoarder on the path to recovery. 

Another crucial aspect of helping someone overcome hoarding is understanding that it’s not acceptable to try to discard items or organize hoarders’ possessions without their approval. Doing so often causes the opposite effect of what’s intended. Hoarders must accept the need to change their behaviors and be involved throughout the process.  

For object hoarders, counseling begins with family members meeting with a therapist who prepares them for what to expect, discussing positive and negative behaviors that could interfere with the success of the intervention. Arranging a time to meet with the hoarder, family members explain the impact of the hoarder’s habits on their lives – particularly the living conditions – but offer their support in a non-confrontational way. 

Friends and family members of animal hoarders often believe removing animals from the home will fix the problem, but that’s never the case. As with object hoarding, it’s important to begin counseling the family members first, so they know how to address the hoarder in an appropriate manner to achieve the desired result. The best results occur, though, when families involve animal control officers or local rescue shelter employees in the intervention. Having these experts on hand to speak with the hoarder in a non-confrontational manner about the health and safety issues of owning too many animals makes it difficult for the hoarder to adopt more animals. 

One thing is certain, though. If a hoarder loses an animal for whatever reason – forced removal, sickness or even death – and hasn’t received some type of cognitive-based treatment like psychotherapy, he or she will simply replace the animal and continue the same behaviors. In fact, animal control experts report they repeatedly deal with the same animal hoarders over time because the individuals fail to seek treatment and continue the behavior. 

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