What Causes Hoarding & What Can You Do About It?

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 12/09/2020

Hoarding disorders don’t receive as much attention as other mental or behavioral disorders, despite the damage it inflicts on the individual’s quality of life. Many people with a hoarding disorder are also suffering from other disorders, such as depression or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

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Many people have the wrong idea when they hear the term ‘hoarding disorder,’ and they immediately think of their friend that likes to shop, the grandparent that loves taking photos, and the sibling that’s always adding to their baseball card collection.

While these may seem like hoarding disorder, they don’t satisfy the full definition. To be considered a hoarder, hoarding needs to have a negative impact on the individual’s quality of life.

If you have a baseball card collection because it’s a fun hobby for you and gives you something to do on the weekends, you’re not a hoarder -- you just have a hobby. Still, nearly 2-6% of the population won’t fall into the ‘hobbyist’ category.

Many people are confused about what a hoarder is and what causes a hoarding disorder in individuals. There’s still plenty to learn about the disorder, but we have a wide range of answers to help you further understand it!

So, what causes hoarding disorders?

Researchers haven’t revealed any direct causes of hoarding disorders, and there isn’t a cure-for-all when treating it. While there’s no concrete answer to the “Why do people hoard?” debate, researchers have discovered several different factors that likely play a role.

Some of the most promising factors include the need to save things, excessive shopping, outside influences from family or friends, stressful or traumatic events, injuries to the brain, and other mental disorders. Therapists are tasked with determining the right factor, ensuring that the individual receives proper treatment.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors, especially since they present themselves in various ways in different people.

  1. The Need to Save Things

One of the most common reasons people hoard is due to their need to save things, which also includes the anxiety felt when it finally comes time to let go of certain belongings. Those suffering from a hoarding disorder often save things whether or not they have a use for it.

Breaking it down further, there are a variety of reasons why someone feels the need to save things well beyond their normal use. That reason could be tied to their belief that it’ll be needed in the future or due to an emotional connection they’ve built with the item.

Other reasons include being indecisive about whether to throw the item out or not, the fact that keeping the item makes them feel safer, or the simple fact that they don’t want to waste the item -- despite there being better things to do with the item. The reasoning here will determine how the hoarding disorder is treated by the therapist or psychologist.

At first, the need to save things won’t create a lot of obstruction inside the home. Over time, however, space will become so limited that certain house areas are unusable and unlivable.

  1. Excessive Shopping

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This factor is related to the first one, but it’s important enough to get its own section. Excessive shopping is often met with one of the behaviors listed above. For example, some people purchase items they don’t need, solely because they think they’ll need it in the future.

Since none of us have unlimited space in our homes or apartments, excessive shopping is never a good idea. Not only do you run out of space in the home, but it affects you financially and eventually starts to affect your relationships with other people.

While we all love to shop and it’s certainly necessary in certain situations, there’s no point in buying more than what’s needed -- especially if it’s just going to sit around the house and add little value to your life.

  1. Influence by Family or Friend

Believe it or not, many people suffering from hoarding disorder have a family member or very close friend (roommate) that also suffers from the disorder. Researchers have discovered that this influence plays a major role in others developing the same behaviors.

This is mostly seen in children with a parent(s) suffering from the disorder. Not only do they pass the behaviors on to their children, but they also create a negative environment for them to grow up in and damage their relationship with them -- especially in their developing years.

People who were influenced by others often don’t know that what they’re doing is damaging their lives because they think, “Well, my Mom does it, so why can’t I?”

  1. Stressful or Traumatic Event

Certain life events are known to cause changes in behavior in some people. If the event is stressful or traumatic enough, there’s a chance it sparks behaviors associated with a hoarding disorder -- whether that be the need to save, excessive shopping, or indecisiveness.

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Some of these life events include divorce, losing a family member or friend, losing your job, facing eviction, a fire that damaged your belongings, and being arrested or accused of something serious. Any of these life events could trigger a hoarding disorder.

For example, someone that just lost their house in a fire might be scared to throw anything out from that point forward -- mostly out of fear that they’ll never see it again. This same concept applies to people who lose a family member and don’t want to get rid of anything that acts as a reminder -- even pieces of furniture the lost loved one once sat on.

  1. Injuries to the Brain

The brain is responsible for controlling everything you do, think, act, say, believe, move, feel, and much more. With that being said, it’s no wonder the brain is constantly being studied when trying to figure out what causes hoarding in certain individuals.

Some brain injuries, brain lesions, and underdeveloped brains could cause people to hoard throughout their life. Some hoarding disorders can even be caused by brain damage due to surgery or a stroke. As you can see, hoarding disorders sometimes come out of left field with no warning.

Many researchers believe the anterior cingulate cortex and insula (two areas of the brain) play a major role in hoarding disorders. Any damage to these areas could spark hoarding behavior in some individuals. It’s important to note that this isn’t the case with all hoarders.

  1. Other Mental or Behavioral Disorders

While most researchers are unsure of any direct correlation between hoarding disorders and other mental or behavioral disorders, there’s certainly a lot of evidence that demonstrates that hoarding disorder cooccurs with other problems.

In fact, many cases of hoarding disorders are diagnosed as a result of diagnosing other mental disorders. Sometimes the hoarding isn’t detected until the other disorders are.

Disorders that fall in this spectrum are depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, and OCD -- among others. Whether these disorders are a cause of hoarding or its effect isn’t known, but it’s clear they don’t mix well together.

Understanding the Symptoms

Since early detection is the best way of preventing a hoarding disorder from worsening, understanding the hoarding disorder symptoms is critical to the healing process. Keep in mind, compulsive hoarding isn’t always easy to spot, and most hoarders do their best to hide it.

Let’s take a look at some of the most important signs of hoarding to ensure you can detect it in yourself or in your loved ones:

  • Limited space, structural damage, animal waste, and broken appliances/utilities in the home.
  • Anxiety whenever you have to throw something away, or when someone mentions throwing something away.
  • Not knowing whether you should throw something out or not, and ultimately decided to keep it.
  • Hard time organizing your belongings, to the point where it obstructs the home's flow or gets in the way of others living inside the home.

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  • If your behavior is starting to affect your relationships with others, your financial status, physical health, or mental health, it’s time to seek help.
  • Feeling like you need to hide your hoarding behaviors from other people, especially if it keeps you away from social interactions.

The earlier you detect the hoarding disorder, the earlier doctors can diagnose it, and the earlier you can start regaining that quality we’re all searching for in life. To do that, you have to be prepared to face the harsh realities that stand in front of you.

Are You Ready to Find the Right Help?

Hoarding disorders aren’t discussed enough, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there ready to help, and it certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t people that want to see you overcome these behaviors.

At Mind Diagnostics, we understand how damaging a hoarding disorder is to an individual and their family. It can completely take over someone’s life and deplete any sense of fulfillment they once had in life.

That’s why we’re dedicated to giving others the right tools and resources to find the help they need immediately. The longer you go without help, the more time the disorder has to impact your life. We’re here to help close that gap.

With our comprehensive online hoarding test, you can start to receive some clarity on your personality and behavior. We also help match you with the best therapists and psychologists in your area to ensure you receive the treatment you deserve.