What is Hoarding? Harmless Hobby or Dangerous Disorder?

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What is Hoarding? Hoarding Defined

Hoarders collect tons of items that they will never need or use. These collections are piled through the home creating mountains of trash and unsanitary living conditions. Compulsive hoarding usually begins in young adults and there are various causes of the disorder.

Those with OCD feel a constant need for order in their lives which leads them to save anything that they think could be useful to them or to someone they know at some future time. Saving brings comfort to the hoarder and on the rare occasion that something they have saved proves to be useful they feel justified in what they have done.

Hoarding can be dangerous as hoarders pile up their collections. Risk of fire and disease is ten-fold in a hoarder’s home. Decaying food, used tissues, dirty laundry, and used cat litter create unsanitary conditions.

According to the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, there are five levels of hoarding which they define by considering the condition of the building, the sanitation and cleanliness of the residence, the accessibility of usable rooms, doors, hallways, and staircases, as well as the condition and number of pets and the presence of insects or rodents.

The five levels are:

  • Level I: Doors and stairways are accessible; few stains; little evidence of rodents or insects; sanitary with no odors.
  • Level II: At least one blocked exit; a major appliance is not working and has not been repaired for more than six months; pet odor and waste evident in the home; narrowed passageways; at least two rooms unusable; garbage throughout the home.
  • Level III: Two or more unusable appliances; rodent and insect infestation; several unusable rooms; dangers such as broken glass are present; home is not clean; clutter is moving to the outside of the home.
  • Level IV: Structural damage; presence of mold and mildew; electrical hazards; sewer backed up into the home; four or more animals (excluding new litters that are well cared for); most rooms, including bedrooms, are unusable; rotting food; dirty dishes throughout the home.
  • Level V: House is unlivable; No water, no power, and no sewer; human waste present throughout home.

Hoarders may lack the ability to make a decision about their possessions leading to the need to store everything. Anxiety about trashing something that could, in the hoarder’s mind, be of use someday is so great that they would rather live in the clutter than to take the risk of increasing their anxiety by getting rid of the possessions.

What is Hoarding? Causes

The causes of hoarding are debatable but it is based in how people think; therefore, psychotherapists use cognitive behavior therapy to help hoarders axe the pandemonium from their lives. Floods, tornados, hurricanes, and other weather related circumstances may cause the need save. Living through times of economic depression can increase the chances of hoarding for the same reasons.

However, some hoarders never experience these life changing phenomenons, but still acquire tons of junk. In the United States alone, there are more than one million hoarders. Approximately 25 to 40 percent of them are also diagnosed with OCD. The exact causes of hoarding are unknown but there is possibly a link to genetics because 85 percent of all hoarders have a close family member who is also suffering from the disorder.

Hoarding could also be caused by brain damage which can originate from lesions, abnormal development, surgeries, strokes, infections, or any other damage to the brain.

It is also unknown why hoarders develop an emotional attachment to the saved items. While this could be explained for a newspaper article that could have some personal collection to the hoarder, explaining why a hoarder is emotionally attached to a candy bar wrapper is much more difficult.

Hoarding is not gender specific and spans across every stage of life and economic status which is partly the reason for not understanding the causes.

What is Hoarding? Signs of Hoarding

Hoarders live in a hodgepodge that varies from junk mail to spoiled food items because they lack the ability to discard these items. Their idea of cleaning usually involves moving items from one pile to another without ever throwing anything away. They acquire items they don’t need, including trash, and then refuse to admit they have no value. They have problems organizing the few needed items in their home and often can’t find them when they become useful. They mimic perfectionists in that everything has to be exactly right in their minds. They become obsessively attached to their possessions and rarely share them with others and they have little to no social interaction.

Hoarders need help from loved ones to admit that they have a problem and to find a professional who is able to get through to them. Professional organizers can help hoarders to decide what is important to keep and what can be trashed without the risk of losing something intrinsically valuable. The first step is for the hoarder to admit that they have a problem, and without this step, the hoarder will simply go through the motions and then pick up where they left off once they are no longer the focus of attention.


Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. “Understanding and Treating Hoarding.” https://www.anxietyandstress.com/hoarding.html

Frost, Randy, Ph.D. International OCD Foundation. 2010 https://www.ocfoundation.org/hoarding/about.aspx

Ma, Lybi. “Everyday Junk: The Clean Sweep.” 2004. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200410/everyday-junk-the-clean-sweep

Mayo Clinic. “Hoarding.” 2009. https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hoarding/DS00966

Penzel, Fred, Ph.D. “Saving the World.” https://westsuffolkpsych.homestead.com/hoarding.html