Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: Hoarding

September 25, 2018 / by / 0 Comment

Dr. Deb Wade

By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services

Do you remember the Beanie Baby craze? Yep … I collected all of them. Then McDonald’s came out with the Teeny Beanie Babies (in Happy Meal boxes), and I ordered and ordered until I got all of those, too! That collection is now nicely stored in a big box somewhere.

I also collect baseballs from all the major league ballparks I’ve visited. That collection is ongoing.

Do you collect something? That’s perfectly natural – some people are just fascinated by collecting, whether it be coin collecting, stamp collecting, hotel keys or big-ticket items, such as vintage cars or motorcycles. But just like most anything, extremes can be unhealthy.

Consider the one who collects, stashes, piles on and attaches sentimental meaning to the degree that nothing can be thrown away or even put away.

Hoarding is an anxiety disorder in which an individual fails to throw away an extremely large number of possessions, most of which have no face value. It affects approximately 2 to 5 percent of the U.S. population, and it is debilitating, often affecting the relationships within the home as well as the sense of control of the one who is the hoarder.

Hoarders tend to have so many possessions in their home that they can’t move through the home easily. In most instances, furniture may be entirely covered with clutter, reaching higher and higher up the wall over time. Eventually, the space in the hoarder’s home may be restricted to a single pathway through which to maneuver. Certainly, this is not a pleasant experience.

Paradoxically, hoarding both relieves anxiety and produces it.  The more hoarders accumulate, the more insulated they feel from the world and its dangers. On the flip side, the more they accumulate, the more isolated they become from the world, including family and friends. The thought, or the suggestion, to clean out, throw away, sort through and discard produces extreme feelings of panic and discomfort.

Of course, one can ask, “What’s the difference between collecting, having clutter, being a pack rat, and hoarding. The main definer of hoarding (apart from those other behaviors) is that now life has become greatly, significantly impacted and has interrupted daily healthy functioning. In addition, alongside the hoarding, it is easy for phobias to arise that only can serve to further isolate the person. For example, one can develop a fear of leaving home, whether that fear is due to being away from the possessions or because of the thought that someone may come and try to eliminate the belongings. Clearly, when this disorder is full-blown, it is very stifling, debilitating and life-constricting.

A sequela to this condition is that, often, relationships are greatly impacted. Marriages could begin to fail, teenage children might not want to bring friends home, and the result is anger, embarrassment, frustration and, of course, deep concern. But for the hoarder, when anxiety, worry and fear begin to feel over the top, and when accumulating more and more things becomes a way to deflect these feelings, the stack will continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger.

If you, or a loved one, is suffering with this disorder, please get help. Therapy can begin to “unlock” the underlying issues, so that eventually, with committed and intentional self-work, the one who hoards may find the need to do so no longer necessary. 

If you are a collector (by the way, I also collect “Do Not Disturb” signs from the hotels I’ve visited with family), or even if clutter may dot your home (Whose home isn’t cluttered now and then?), have no fear – those are innocent and natural occurrences. However, if the descriptions above seem too familiar, help is available.

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