How To Navigate Compulsive Hoarding

Reviewed by Aaron Horn, LMFT

Published 06/24/2022

Compulsive hoarding, also known as disposophobia, is a disorder associated with having persistent difficulty discarding items. Hoarders generally feel the need to “save” possessions from their past, even if those items are useless moving forward. Compulsive hoarding creates many difficulties not only for those struggling with the disorder but also for friends and family members of the person dealing with disposophobia.

This article is going to outline what compulsive hoarding is, symptoms of the disorder, effects of compulsive hoarding, and what steps can be taken to help a compulsive hoarder improve their quality of life.

What is Compulsive Hoarding?

Compulsive hoarding is more than simply holding on to receipts from the grocery store. Compulsive hoarding “is the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.” It is often associated with other mental disorders. In particular, disorders such as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are commonly linked with compulsive hoarding. However, it would be misleading to define compulsive hoarding as simply a symptom of a different mental disorder – it is very possible to experience compulsive hoarding without also having a different mental disorder.

Compulsive hoarders generally start to first show symptoms between the ages of 11 and 15. From there, hoarding usually gets worse with age. Middle age is when hoarding practices tend to start becoming seriously harmful to an individual and his/her family members. Hoarding often becomes the worst, and most common, in old age. In fact, hoarding is nearly three times as prevalent in individuals over age 54 than it is in adults aged 34 to 44. This is due to the fact that compulsive hoarding is both chronic and progressive. Essentially, this means that hoarding can’t be treated like an illness like the flu. Hoarding will rarely naturally disappear. Rather, hoarding tendencies will become more severe as time passes.

The cause of compulsive hoarding is unclear to scientists. Some studies have indicated that hoarding can result from frontal-lobe lesions. However, the links are ambiguous and do not provide much of a therapeutic application at this point in time. Other causes have been posited, such as genetics, family history, and stressful life events. There are links from these factors to compulsive hoarding, but no hard evidence of direct causes.

Signs and Symptoms of Compulsive Hoarding

Hoarding can manifest itself in many different ways that are individual to each person. However, there are common trends that can be useful to know in diagnosing compulsive hoarding in oneself or one’s family members.

The most universal symptom of hoarding is, of course, the gradual buildup of clutter and an excessive amount of unorganized possessions in one’s living space. A hoarder’s house often becomes a maze of random possessions, ranging from newspapers to plastic bags to cardboard boxes. Sometimes it is impossible to navigate through a hoarder’s house because excessive items block hallways and living areas.

An important characteristic of a hoarder is that the possessions being saved are unorganized and messy. Contrasting to a collector, a hoarder does not place possessions in neatly organized piles or folders, and instead just has things laying in random places.

Beyond just a hoarder’s house, hoarding practices can extend to garages, vehicles, yards, and basically any space that is available. This messy buildup of possessions can also include food and perishables, which causes unsanitary living conditions.

It’s important to note that this buildup of items is due to a hoarder’s perception that these items will one day be useful. Often, a hoarder will think an item like an old box is unique and will come in handy in the future. Hoarders have a lot of difficulty separating themselves from material possessions for sentimental reasons, as well as the thought that they are throwing away something useful.

Another symptom of compulsive hoarding is getting very anxious and upset about the prospect of throwing something away, even if it seems clear that this item serves no purpose. These feelings of anxiety are often present in many areas of life for a hoarder, not just collecting material items. It is very common for a hoarder to have trouble making decisions, planning, organizing, and to have a tendency towards perfectionism.

Other symptoms of compulsive hoarding have to deal with the constant acquisition of new and often useless items. Compulsive hoarding is often linked with compulsive buying of items that are on sale. Things like free keychains, stickers, or other marketing gimmicks are very difficult for hoarders to pass up. This adds to the accumulation of worthless items in a hoarder’s house.

Self-assessment of compulsive hoarding is often very difficult to accomplish. If you or somebody you care about is at risk for compulsive hoarding, please take this short quiz to test your risk of having disposophobia. It only takes a few minutes but can be extremely helpful in understanding if you are at risk for compulsive hoarding tendencies.

Effects of Extreme Hoarding

Now that the symptoms of compulsive hoarding are better understood, the truly important information is how these practices affect one’s life. The negative effects of extreme hoarding are very serious and can impact all aspects of life.

From an individual’s perspective, living in a hoarder’s house can be devastating to both physical and mental health.

Physically, the clutter and buildup of possessions can be a risk to safety. Fire hazards become far more prominent when years’ worth of old newspapers are sitting together in a room. Tripping and falling hazards become dangerous when clutter reaches stairways and narrow hallways. The clutter can affect kitchen and bathroom space and prevent proper and safe use of equipment like an oven or sink.

The diminished quality of life that a hoarder’s house presents is truly important. Sometimes, appliances will break but a hoarder will be too embarrassed to have it fixed, so they may live without essentials like heating and air conditioning. These factors all accumulate and can really hurt the quality of life for somebody suffering from compulsive hoarding.

Beyond the negative implications that hoarding has for an individual, the effects that it can have on family and friends of that individual are also enormous. These effects are often more consequential and can destroy lives.

Being closely related to a hoarder can cause anger, resentment, and/or depression for family members and friends. Attempting to raise children in a hoarder’s house can cause serious developmental issues for a child. Social development, along with other important mental developments, can be impaired and long-term damage may be done.

Hoarding can lead to divorce, eviction, or unwanted child custody issues. Serious financial problems also may arise due to the characteristics of compulsive hoarding.

Steps to Help a Hoarder

While there is no known “cure” for compulsive hoarding, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to help somebody you know who is struggling with compulsive hoarding.

The first and most important step in helping somebody struggling with compulsive hoarding is compassion. It is wrong and ineffective to blame an individual for compulsive hoarding, just like it is wrong and ineffective to blame an individual for having anxiety. Always, always, always treat the person with respect, dignity, and compassion.

One must be sure that this person is struggling with compulsive hoarding. Go over a list of hoarding symptoms (like those described above) with the individual.

Once the person struggling with compulsive hoarding has realized that they do have a problem, there are steps they can take to mitigate the issue. Firstly, go through the hoarder’s house with them and try to discard the most extraneous and useless items. Secondly, simply talk through their thought process, and try to show the person why collecting these things is hurting their quality of life.

For some people, medical treatment is a viable and helpful option. For all guidance regarding treatment, please consult a licensed medical professional. They will guide you through the process of potentially finding medication or alternative treatment.

Studies have recently been promising in finding that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people struggling with compulsive hoarding. As research into this disorder becomes more advanced, new therapies and medications will certainly arise. Again, consult a licensed medical professional for any advice regarding medical treatment.

Unfortunately, there is no real way to prevent compulsive hoarding. However, education can be a very important factor in trying to lower the risk of symptomatic compulsive hoarding. If tendencies arise that are beginning to look like compulsive hoarding, education about the negative effects of the disorder could be helpful.

Conclusion: Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About Compulsive Hoarding

Compulsive hoarding is a very serious disorder that can truly hurt an individual’s quality of life, as well as erode relationships with family and friends. However, there are so many ways to overcome this disorder, especially with the help of friends and family. Don’t let fears about hoarding ruin your life, but also don’t ignore signs that may be leading to compulsive hoarding. Never be afraid to ask for help. Most importantly, rely on your friends, family, and support network to receive the help you may need.