Hoarding - obsessive compulsive disorder

Hoarding is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hoarding is a disorder where someone stores objects and belongings excessively in a chaotic manner. Usually, the stored items are unmanageable due to amounts of clutter. These items can be of little or no monetary value. However, in my experience of working with hoarders, I found that items kept were of an extremely high sentimental value, whether damaged or not. 


What is hoarding?

Some individuals like to possess more items than usual, but this doesn’t interfere with their life or cause any difficulty moving around the house. Hoarding becomes an issue if items stored are a hazard and moving around the house becomes difficult or dangerous. If an individual has too many items and is left with no choice but to put things in places like in front of doors or windows, blocking entrances or items occupying places to sit – and they are unable to see the effect of this on them or their family/friends then they could be hoarding. 

Hoarding is a significant problem if items around the housing are causing distress to family or friends and the thought of decluttering or removing these items is causing upset, low moods or depression to the person who is possessing the items. If others talk about removing these items or clearing them out – this can be extremely stressful for hoarders as they are emotionally attached to these items and the thought of removing these triggers difficult emotions. Hoarders have great difficulty parting with their belongings and if forced to do so it will deteriorate their mental health. 

Hoarding misconceptions

It is a misconception that hoarders are a mess in all areas of life and most people think they are extremely unorganised. In my experience of working with hoarders, I learnt that they are organised in their own way. Most are very organised with their routine and had everything written down and reminders were sent. Others are organised in different areas of life, like their dressing was immaculate, always wearing fresh clothes and looking perfect. 

Why do people hoard?

During my counselling training, I voluntarily counselled people with OCD (hoarding) through my placement agency. I came across many clients who presented different reasons for hoarding. To my understanding, people don’t hold onto items as a need or want but to what is attached and associated with that particular item. It’s the memory they hold onto and what the item/s represent. Removing these items means removing particular memories or thoughts – memories which maybe keeps these people going and gives them a sense of normality and life or a sense of control. It can be a connection to the unresolved past. 

Some hold onto items because they feel and think they ‘could need it one day’. In my experience of counselling hoarders, items kept for decades were never ‘needed’ but it gave hoarders some form of security just having it buried somewhere in the house and knowing that it was reachable and available if they wanted it. 

It is a common misconception that due to the high amounts of collectables hoarders become unorganised and do not know where particular items are stored. Hoarders are more capable of thinking in creative ways than most of us; they find ways around storing excessively and know where all their things are. 

If you have ever walked into a hoarder’s home, you would naturally assume they don’t know where anything is because of the high amounts of items – but they do know and these items and ‘clutter’ has been organised in their specific way.

Hoarding doesn’t come alone – it leads to other conditions too. Many hoarders reported feeling embarrassed and not being able to socialise and invite people home because of the state of their homes. This naturally made them feel extremely isolated and challenged their self-esteem and confidence. 

Sometimes hoarding is hereditary, it is passed onto the next generation. It becomes a lifestyle and that then becomes a normal way of living. If a child is raised in a house full of items they will learn that items are never to be thrown away. By the time they are an adult – they are already a hoarder as that behaviour was modelled to them. But that doesn't mean the cycle can't be broken. Counselling can help anyone recover given that they are committed. 

How therapy can help with hoarding?

Counselling someone with OCD (hoarding) is long term work and requires an extreme non-judgemental approach and attitude. Hoarders hold onto items for different reasons and exploring these reasons in therapy and in a safe, non-judgmental environment will help these people understand what emotions the items are associated with and how they can keep the emotion or manage it and how they can let go of the items. 

Asking them questions like: 

  • “What does it remind you of?”
  • “What would it be like if you didn't have it?”
  • “How can you remember…(person, time or event)...without possessing the item”?
  • “What would it be like to let the item go?”

Many hoarders are buying items very regularly and it can be helpful to talk about their triggers.

  • “What happens when you get the urge to go to shops?”
  • “What emotions do you feel when you want to go shopping?”
  • “If you didn’t shop, what else could you do to keep yourself busy?”

Talking about alternatives is very useful too. It will help them develop coping strategies which most hoarders lack and therefore when they relapse or get upset over something they quickly want to buy more stuff to feel a sense of control or calmness. 

In my early years of training, when I used to go to clients’ homes for their counselling sessions, I tried to understand their perception and to see things from their lens and understand the emotions these clients have and reasons for possessing items. 

I tried to understand why they hold onto things that they will never need again. 

What does it mean for them to hold onto things which are decades old? I felt the only way to connect to these clients' deeper feelings was by trying to relate in some way. And after some thought, I shared 1-2-1 supervision about an item that I had kept for more than 20 years. I occasionally take it out and look at it, then put it back safely. It reminded me of a person I have lost. Holding onto that item for me meant holding onto a part of that person, their memory, their fragrance and the feeling I had just being around them. 

After being able to relate to my clients I learnt that it wasn’t the items they possess they need to talk about – it was what it represents for them. It takes time to recover from hoarding, and people who are recovering need empathy, care and support from people around them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6
Written by Sana Kamran, MBACP Integrative Counsellor
Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6

I am a Counsellor and work with people from all walks of life. My passion is to support people in their journey of healing and recovery, and raise mental health awareness to a wider community. I enjoy writing about various topics including:
Forced Marriages
Healing and recovery
Mental health
Watch this space for more articles

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