Hoarding: What it is and how to cope

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Having a lot of stuff — and feeling really attached to your things — can be a sign of something more than being just “messy.” Here are a few things to know about hoarding and how to get support.

What is hoarding?

Hoarding is defined as having the urge to collect and keep an excessive amount of stuff. And it’s more than just having a lot of clutter in your living space. A big part of hoarding includes the way people feel about their things — like they’re emotionally attached to them and can’t let them go.

For example, to some people, a used plastic bag may be ready for recycling. To people struggling with hoarding, a used plastic bag may feel more like a sentimental item, or they may have a strong urge to keep it in case they need it in the future. It’s the attachment to many things like this that may be a sign of hoarding.

Hoarding can impact a person’s daily life. Too much clutter can lead to social, physical and emotional challenges. It can also affect a person’s overall well-being and lead to health and safety concerns about their living space (e.g. fire hazards, pests, etc.).

Just like mental disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), if the hoarding behaviour reaches a certain level, it may be diagnosed as hoarding disorder by a health-care professional. It’s important to remember that hoarding is not a choice for the person struggling with it — it’s a mental disorder and should be treated like one.

If you’re struggling with collecting and/or letting go of material things, it’s important to talk to a safe adult about it. They can help you get support and find ways to alleviate the anxiety associated with letting go of stuff.

Why might I be hoarding?

No one really knows exactly what leads to hoarding. It could be a learned behaviour (like if a person sees their parent/caregiver doing it) or it could have something to do with the chemical makeup of the brain. (For example, hoarding can be associated with other mental disorders such as depression). In some cases, people may start hoarding after experiencing trauma or a stressful life event.

What are the signs of hoarding?

People may show hoarding behaviour in different ways. They may:

  • collect an overwhelming number of things (e.g. bags, papers, stuffed animals, books, etc.)
  • live with excessive clutter (to the point where it interferes with a safe/healthy living space)
  • have trouble letting go of their things (e.g. they may get extremely upset/stressed about cleaning up/throwing something out)
  • have an intense emotional attachment to their items (e.g. they may have a stronger connection to their possessions than other people)
  • feel ashamed/embarrassed about the amount of stuff they have
  • not realize or understand how serious the hoarding is
  • feel a strong desire to get new things

Am I hoarding?

If you think you may be struggling with hoarding, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Does the amount of stuff in my living space affect what I can do in it?
  • How do I feel when I decide to keep something?
  • How hard is it for me to let go of my possessions?
  • What types of items do I have trouble letting go of?
  • How do I feel when I try to let go of an item?
  • How do my possessions make me feel?

How is hoarding treated?

If you’re struggling with hoarding, there are always things you can do to cope.

It’s important to remember that throwing out a person’s things — or trying to talk them out of collecting new items — won’t necessarily fix the problem. The underlying feelings associated with the hoarding behaviour (e.g. anxiety, guilt, stress, etc.) may need to be addressed in order for the person to feel relief.

Treatment options for hoarding vary from person to person, but may include:

  • therapy and/or counselling (e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) — this involves learning about hoarding, setting goals, reducing anxiety and practicing removing items from your life over time)
  • activities aimed at slowly reducing hoarding behaviour
  • medication

You can speak to a health-care professional to learn more about the treatment options available. You may have to try a few things in order to find a treatment that works best for you.

If you think you or someone you know may be struggling with hoarding, confidential support is available. You can talk to a doctor or reach out to Kids Help Phone for information and resources at any time.