Hoarding: the Secret Shame of Millions of Americans

List: Posted: 11/04/11

Chances are, we have all known a mild hoarder in our lives.  Call them pack rats, clutter freaks, junk collectors, etc, there are always those who just can never throw anything away, or can never organize anything. 


In recent years, there has been so much attention given to hoarding, there are now television shows based on such behavior (Hoarders on A&E) and appearances by hoarders on talk shows (Oprah, The View, etc).  Hoarding is a serious condition that can get worse with time, and can affect all areas of a person's life.  The following is a breakdown of what hoarding is, the symptoms of hoarding, and some ways to get help.

What is Hoarding?


Hoarding can be described as the compulsive purchasing, acquiring and saving of large amounts of a multitude of items or one single type of item.  Hoarding is considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder and can be related to other mental illnesses, including depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder and impulsive control disorder.


It is estimated that 2 percent of the population suffers from hoarding, but hoarders are such isolated individuals that the actual number may be much higher.  Hoarding usually begins in childhood, but can be undetected until adulthood.


Symptoms of hoarding include:

  • Not throwing away disposable purchases such as newspapers, magazines, paper and plastic bags, boxes, household supplies, food, and clothing.

  • Severe anxiety about discarding possessions.

  • Impulsive and extreme purchasing of possessions (this can include animals).

  • Overwhelmed or embarrassed by possessions.

  • Anxious of other people touching possessions.

  • Functional problems such as loss of living space inside the home (no place to eat, sleep, or cook).

  • Frequent arguments with other family members or roommates when asked to clean up or change hoarding behavior.
  • Refusal to tolerate visitors; partial or complete withdrawal from society.


Understanding Hoarding


Hoarders generally experience shame and embarrassment about their behavior and typically live a very solitary life that keeps many people from ever entering their home.  Although hoarding can cause a multitude of problems such as sanitation issues, financial issues and animal cruelty issues, the biggest impact of hoarding is on an individual's personal life.


Another type of hoarding relates to people who cannot differentiate or sort information correctly in their brain, such as the difference between trash and something of value.  Since they cannot understand the difference between the two at their most basic level of functioning, this individual will not throw anything away, including rotting food, empty containers, dead animals and garbage.  This can cause health problems for the hoarder and anyone else living in the home, as there is often an exposure to mold and other toxic substances.


Recovering From Hoarding


Hoarding is a serious illness that often requires psychological help from a psychiatrist or behavioral therapist.  The good news is that hoarding is entirely treatable and former hoarders have gone on to lead normal lives.


As with other obsessive-compulsive disorders, there are a number of books available on the subject to help, but most psychologists have seen the greatest recovery success when a hoarder seeks counseling and group therapy of their own free will to discuss their affliction.  There are online support groups that can help, as well.  In addition, there are effective obsessive-compulsive medications that can help the brain's obsession with hoarding.


If you or a loved one is suffering from hoarding, the most important thing to remember is that  treatment must be sought, regardless of the method eventually used.  There is plenty of sympathetic help for hoarding, and resources that can help you and your family return to living a healthy, uncluttered life.



Doctors & Physicians: Family Practice

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