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pile of old shoes

Will you be buried by your hoarding habits?

As a kid, you probably grew up to the incessant tune of your parents telling you to clean your room.

It’s an arduous task in its own right, but for some, a strong reluctance to organise and throw away things is an indication of a deeper issue.

Dr Richard Moulding, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at Deakin University, says ‘individuals with hoarding often recall low level symptoms starting around their adolescent years.’

Symptoms can include:

  • an inability to throw away possessions
  • great difficulty categorising or organising possessions
  • indecision about what to keep or where to put things.

‘Hoarding disorder is a disabling clinical problem that remains under-reported by individuals experiencing the problem and under-treated by clinicians,’ Dr Moulding says. The disorder consumes the lives of around 2% to 5% of the population.

How does hoarding disorder start?

The first episode of Hoarders aired in August 2009, and it offered a troubling glimpse into the lives of those whose living spaces had become consumed by their things, and an inability to part with them.

The people featured in each episode are seen to be at the tipping point, but Dr Moulding says it’s an issue that snowballs for many years before reaching that point.

‘Hoarding often has a chronic and insidious course, taking years to develop but eventually becoming overwhelming,’ he explains. ‘The symptoms tend to worsen between adolescence and the individual’s mid-30s.

‘Individuals have difficulty discarding items regardless of their value, which they either buy or receive for free,’ Dr Moulding says. ‘Most people with hoarding don’t save absolutely everything, but rather things that are important to them for some reason.’

He notes the most often saved items include:

‘Clothes; greeting cards and letters; bills and bank statements; books and magazines; knick-knacks; mementoes and souvenirs; records and tapes; pictures; sentimental objects; recipes; wrapping paper; materials, paper; pens; gifts; stationary; and old things.’

Why do we hoard things?

‘Many factors have been implicated in the development of hoarding,’ Dr Moulding says.

These include:

  • genetic, biological, neurological and biochemical factors
  • family and background factors
  • broad personality features (e.g. perfectionism)
  • beliefs and assumptions.

All of these factors may make someone more vulnerable to developing hoarding, according to Dr Moulding. But in particular, ‘individuals with hoarding often show difficulties with decision-making and categorisation, as well as lower confidence in their memory.’

He explains that hoarding is most frequently associated with a ‘perfectionistic’ personality type.

‘This is reflected in many people with hoarding not wanting to make mistakes, so keeping things to avoid making an error.

‘They also have difficulty categorising and storing objects as an over-attention to detail means they seem to be less able to see the overall picture, as well as sometimes not wanting to sort or discard until it can be done perfectly,’ Dr Moulding says.

There is also an association with disrupted relationships, so sometimes things are held onto due to it being a reminder of relationships with other people.

People with hoarding can come to derive a sense of security from their stuff, and consequently may have a stronger emotional attachment to their possessions.

'Most people with hoarding don’t save absolutely everything, but rather things that are important to them for some reason.'

Dr Richard Moulding,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

The dangers of hoarder houses

When hoarding reaches the point of cluttering living spaces – bedrooms, kitchens, lounge rooms, etc. – so they can no longer be used for their functional purpose, Dr Moulding says this is when the disorder results in ‘significant distress or a reduced ability to live normally.’

Hoarding is associated with other psychological difficulties, like anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and the condition can create added strain on a sufferer’s mental health.

It also compromises the safety of those living in the hoarding environment. Dr Moulding explains it increases the risk of ‘possible fires, tripping hazards, and difficulties with hygiene.’

One of the most infamous cases of hoarding is the Collyer brothers in the 1930s. In the grips of the disorder, having collected over 120 tonnes of ‘things’, the two brothers withdrew into social isolation before both falling victim to the trap their house had become…

How can you stop hoarding?

Dr Moulding says the most effective treatment for hoarding is a psychological therapy called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

‘This psychological treatment for hoarding involves a number of aspects. In particular, we try to help individuals improve their skills in organisation and problem solving, so as to help with any difficulties with decision-making and categorisation,’ he explains.

While the therapy encourages you to sort through and discard your unneeded possessions, Dr Moulding says an important principle of treatment is that ‘we never force an individual to discard a possession, nor will any possessions be thrown out without the individual’s consent.’

Of course, not everyone will be willing to engage in therapy, or mightn’t be able to afford it. In this case, there are peer support groups which use the same approach as CBT.

If you know or live with a hoarder, Dr Moulding says that generally, if the sufferer is willing, the best way you can assist them is to help them seek support through therapy.

‘Individuals in the family can also be great support workers,’ he says, ‘but obviously they have to also look after their own stress and mental health as it can be very taxing to live in a hoarding environment.’

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Dr Richard Moulding
Dr Richard Moulding

Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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