Hoarding can be a debilitating mental health condition characterized by compulsive behaviors and emotional attachment to physical objects. While it is depicted in extreme ways on popularized TV shows, hoarding is more common than you might think, and it can be treated.

What is hoarding?

Hoarding is a mental health condition where an individual has a compulsive drive to save objects and an emotional inability to get rid of their objects, even when their home becomes overly cluttered or even dangerous. People who hoard collect items that are of very little use to themselves or to others. This could include bags of used clothing that aren’t their size, recyclable containers that are empty, or torn suitcases that no longer function properly. When loved ones suggest that a person who hoards reduces the amount of stuff that they have, they’re likely to become upset and distressed.

Sometimes, people who hoard lose their jobs because of their compulsive behaviors. Others get evicted from their living spaces and end up unhoused, without an ability to keep their collections. When forced to give up their objects, they can become hostile, combative, or argumentative. This places a huge strain on the relationships they have with those around them, including friends, family, and partners. Hoarding also comes with difficult emotions such as despair, frustration, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, panic, and hopelessness.

Origins of hoarding

There are many reasons why someone would hoard to the point of personal and relational harm. Hoarding, while being its own diagnosable mental health condition, is often the result of another untreated mental health condition. People who hoard may suffer from extreme:

Many people who hoard do so as a way of feeling in-control of themselves and the world around them. While seen as chaos to an outsider, surrounding themselves with objects is a form of protection and is a coping technique to deal with difficult, painful emotions. It offers them a sense of safety and security. For people who experienced traumatic events, collecting can be a way of expressing incredibly complex emotions that can’t be put into words.

Therapy for hoarding

Therapists who specialize in treating hoarding disorders often have extensive training in cognitive behavioral techniques. They work with their clients to understand the reasons behind the hoarding compulsions right down to the thought patterns. When ready, the therapist and client collaborate on changing these thought patterns and exploring the resulting emotional or behavioral changes. Therapists do so in a nonjudgmental, compassionate way, as they recognize the importance of taking treatment slowly and not pushing their clients to progress past the point of comfort. Because hoarding is a behavioral disorder, therapists address the client’s readiness to change. When the client feels motivated to change their life, the therapist then supports them as they rid themselves of their unneeded objects.