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Published:October 13th, 2009 12:09 EST
Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome

Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome

By Maria Grella

There is a shameful secret affecting nearly 1.4 million Americans.  It takes over their homes, their lives, and poses a physical threat.  Though very common, the condition is often hidden, making it hard to get treatment. It`s called Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome and there is hoarding treatment to help you.

According to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, hoarding is defined as the acquisition of and the inability to discard worthless items, though they appear (to others) to have no value ".  More severe than the occasional collector, or so called "pack-rat`, this disorder is intertwined with O.C.D, (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).  In an effort to manage anxiety raised by obsessive thoughts, hoarders collect possessions to an extreme point.  Hoarding can also be due to Attention Deficit Disorder, psychosis, depression, or dementia.

Dr. Randy Frost defines Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome based on three criteria:  accumulating and failing to discard perceived useless possessions, cluttered living spaces, and significant distress or problems functioning caused by hoarding.  Sufferers exhibit an obsessive need to get and save objects, and have anxiety throwing them away because of a possible need or value.  They also may form emotional attachments to the objects, leading to saving things for "just-in-case` scenarios.  The feeling of doubt sets in; what if I need this and I`ve thrown it away?

The second criteria can go unnoticed.  Living spaces become amply cluttered so as to prohibit activities for which those spaces were originally designed.  With more possessions going in than coming out, it isn`t unusual for the build-up to cause narrow pathways where clear hallways once were.  It can easily pile up, taking over everything, from floors, counter-tops and chairs, to entire rooms, prohibiting the use of bedrooms, kitchens, or garages.  It becomes impossible to use the rooms for their actual purpose. 

The third condition involves the anguish caused by hoarding.  People who have Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome have trouble with problem solving and processing information.  The irony is that sufferers are actually perfectionists who are in constant fear of making a mistake.  To avoid mistakes, they take longer than normal to make a decision because they face severe difficulties in doing so.  In fact, a lot of time is spent churning "; moving one pile to another, instead of disposing of anything.  Social activities are also hindered as embarrassment prevents sufferers from having company over.

The most frequently hoarded items include books, magazines, and newspapers but some other strange examples include chewed food, feces, and animals.  The idea of reading the articles, using the stored items creatively (as in scrap-booking), or merely having access to the information justifies the saving.  Such clutter inevitably causes unsanitary conditions for all involved.  The individual`s risk of falling, inability to prepare food or breathe easily from dust, feces, and debris is only the beginning.  The risks to others include an increased fire hazard, a break out in pest infestations, and unsanitary conditions, especially if animals are part of the collection. 

Hoarding was once thought to be only an elderly affliction, but studies have shown that this behavior is established in early adulthood, sometimes in childhood by the age of five, and can run in families.  Most hoarders are reluctant to seek help due to illness, ignorance or shame. 

Taking legal action, like filing charges or condemning the place, will more than likely not work, as the person may clean up but will start hoarding once again.  A better approach is a firm but non-confrontational one.  Clean up provokes intense anxiety, and must be handled gently, with caring and encouragement.  The best course of action, according to mental health experts, is to get a diagnosis of the cause because a person with O.C.D. is treated differently that those of dementia or depression. 

Several studies are underway to discover causes and treatments of compulsive hoarding.   Brain scans have shown abnormalities in areas involved with decision making and the ability to concentrate.  They have trouble focusing attention, have avoidance and procrastination issues.  Treatment of Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome may include combining psychotherapy, (finding out what triggers the worrisome thoughts), exposure therapy, (practicing new responses to those feelings), and medication, (such as Paxil or Luvox, anti-anxiety meds, or Ritalin to focus attention).