Here's What It's Like Inside the Mind of a Hoarder

December 23rd 2015

Taylor Bell

The new year offers people the chance to say goodbye to the past and hello to the future. But for some people, saying goodbye to things is impossible. That's the problem for people with a hoarding disorder.

Most people know of the disorder from A&E's hit television show "Hoarders." But the truth behind hoarding is quite different, and the disorder can be a debilitating problem for those who suffer from it.

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What is hoarding?

Hoarding is the "compulsive purchasing, acquiring, searching, and saving of items that have little or no value," according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. No matter how insignificant an item may be, a hoarder cannot bring himself to let it go. That inability leads to anxiety and a seemingly infinite amount of clutter.

A hoarder is not the same as a person who likes to hang onto things. The main difference between someone who is simply a pack rat and someone with a hoarding disorder is that a hoarder's behavior has a negative effect on his or her daily routine, according to Psychology Today. Hoarding can lead to isolation, limited social interaction, physical problems, and financial issues.

a cluttered home

Inside the mind of someone who hoards

People who have hoarding disorders tend to be perfectionists. They are desperate to make the right decision about what to do for each item they have. But the stress of trying to make the perfect decision all the time about each and every single one of their possessions becomes so overwhelming and time-consuming that they procrastinate or abandon trying to figure it all out, according to Science News. Rather than bother with the stress of sorting out what to do with everything, they just keep everything. 

In 2012, Yale University School of Medicine professor David Tolin conducted a study to find out what the brain of a hoarder looks like compared to that of a healthy person, Scientific American reports. Tolin and his team of researchers gathered 43 adult hoarders, 31 people diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, and 33 healthy adults.

caged cats

Tolin asked each group to bring miscellaneous papers, such as junk mail and newspapers, from their homes and place them in a pile. The researchers asked the subjects whether they wanted to keep the items or shred them. And — no surprise — the hoarders were the ones who had the most difficulty choosing which items to discard. It also took the hoarders slightly longer to make their decisions about what to do with the items than the healthy adults. 

When put under an MRI, the hoarders’ brain responses also differed from those of the other participants. Researchers found there was more stimulation in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that deals with decision-making, "particularly in situations involving conflicting information or uncertainty," Time reports.

Common statistics for hoarders

Here are some facts about hoarding.

  • Hoarding can begin as early as the teenage years, but the most common age for people seeking treatment for hoarding is 50, according to the International OCD Foundation.
  • 2 to 5 percent of the population is affected by hoarding.
  • Serious signs of hoarding are present in one in 50 people.
  • People who hoard tend to live alone and may have a family member with a similar problem.

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Why people hoard

It is not clear what triggers hoarding. It is common for those who have suffered from a traumatic experience, such as the death of a spouse or parent, to hoard as way to cope with emotional stress, according to the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies

Can It be treated?


Because hoarding is currently considered a form OCD, it is treated in the same way as OCD, with the same medications. But many researchers and health organizations (such as the American Psychiatric Association) are considering establishing it as an entirely separate disorder.