Hoarding: Meaning & Causes

Instructor: David White
In a clinical context, hoarding is a symptom of a larger mental health issue and if not addressed it can become a risk to a person's physical health and safety. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define hoarding and gain insight into its causes and treatments.

What is Hoarding?

If you look around your room, your apartment, or your house, you're likely to come across a number of different items that you don't remember acquiring or cannot imagine why you would have kept such a thing. Maybe it's a giant pile of old flyers, clothes that no longer fit, or newspapers from years past. Perhaps you've just neglected to clean for a while, or maybe you had a particular reason for hanging on to these things, even though you no longer have a use for them.

In the mental health field, a person who collects a large number of things that they don't need or won't use is referred to as a hoarder. Rather than simply neglecting to clean their homes or forgetting to throw things away, hoarders will typically attach meanings or emotions to objects, which will ultimately keep them from getting rid of things.

Hoarding can eventually become a safety hazard if it blocks walkways and takes up essential space.
hoarding

For example, if for some reason I felt that light bulbs reminded me of a parent that had passed away, I might collect boxes of light bulbs and store them in my house in order to continually remind me of that parent. If my attachment was rooted in anxiety, one of the reasons that I might hoard light bulbs could be that I believe throwing them away would slowly erase the memory of my parent, so I would become inordinately attached to them and continue to hoard.

Hoarding and Anxiety

Although the term 'hoarding' is often casually used to describe a person that has a lot of things or doesn't like to throw things away, in a clinical sense, hoarding is generally the result of or related to an anxiety disorder. When hoarding is related to anxiety, a person will likely collect things in order to provide themselves with positive feelings or avoid some negative consequence.

If, for example, a person was raised in a very poor household where food or resources were scarce, they may place a very high value on owning things or stockpiling food. In this case, the things that they are stockpiling provide them with a sense of comfort and safety. Likewise, they may also assume that if they didn't do this, they would suffer or have to go without, which might cause an increase in anxiety related to the feelings they felt as a child.

In this previous example, hoarding becomes both a symptom of and response to anxiety because it is irrationally connected to feelings of safety and security. In this case, the individual will likely continue to stockpile things in order to prevent negative feelings, which can eventually begin to take over their living space and become problematic.

Problematic Hoarding

It is important to keep in mind that there is a very important difference between collecting and hoarding. Many people collect things, and in some cases they may simply have too much stuff in their house, but this doesn't mean that they are a hoarder.

In most cases, hoarding is a compulsive behavior, which means that the individual can't stop themselves from doing it. If you look back at the examples that I've cited so far, the act of not collecting something or the act of throwing something away can have seriously negative consequences attached to it, regardless of whether they are rational.

The compulsive nature of hoarding is one of the major reasons that it is problematic. In a clinical sense, hoarding may begin as a way to prevent anxiety but it can quickly become a impairment, which is when it starts to negatively affect a person's life. For example, if a person is hoarding food in order to prevent anxiety, the food might attract bugs and rodents, which will ultimately make their living space unsanitary and potentially dangerous. If, on the other hand, the person is collecting boxes of things, the piles could eventually take over the floor space and become a fire hazard.

Hoarding things like animals can pose a serious health hazard due to disease.
animal hoarding

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