WebMD Feature Archive
Harmless collector or compulsive hoarder?
Three questions to help you decide if you've crossed the line into hoarding, and how treatment can help you declutter.
Profile of a hoarder
At first glance hoarders may be viewed as untidy, uncaring slobs. However
that’s not the case, say Saxena and Frost. They describe some traits that may
- An urge to acquire. Some hoarders may be shoppers, others
masters of finding freebies or near-freebies, from coupons to car-boot sale
bargains. For some the "stuff" gives them comfort. Others may form emotional
attachments to the items.
- Perfectionism. "It doesn't seem to fit at first", Frost says. But
consider the thinking pattern of a typical hoarder: when faced with a pile of
things, the first thought in deciding to clear it out, Frost says, is often
this: "If I throw this away, I might be making a mistake". Saxena agrees,
saying that hoarders often tell him, "I can't do any task unless I do it
perfectly". For instance faced with towering piles of newspapers, they think
there is no way they can do an outstanding job - so they don't even start.
- Indecision and avoidance. Hoarders also tend to have trouble making
decisions - to throw it out or not? - so the clutter accumulates. Suppose an
empty shoe box is found in the middle of clearing out cupboards. A non-hoarder
may bin it without thinking twice, reasoning that the shoes, even if they still
have them, are on a shoe rack or on the cupboard floor. But Frost finds a
hoarder's thinking process is often different. A hoarder might think, "But it
could hold something else. Maybe I should save it for bills". Then indecision
may creep in. "Maybe my bills won't fit", the hoarder may think. More
indecision. "My cousin does a lot of eBay business and he needs boxes, so I’d
better save it". Saxena says, "Saving stuff is an avoidance behaviour. You
don't need to decide whether to throw it away".
- A sense of responsibility. Some hoarders hate to waste anything and
feel guilty about binning things. They feel as if they’re a bad person, they
often tell Frost, if they are wasteful. For others - including Paula Kotakis -
a sense of responsibility can keep them in cluttered surroundings. Why does she
tend to hold on to printed materials? "Someone might need this information one
day", she says was her reasoning. "And I'm responsible for providing it".
Inside a hoarder's brain
When Saxena examined the brains of compulsive hoarders with positron
emission tomography (PET), he found lower than normal activity in the anterior
cingulate cortex. That area is associated with such tasks as focused attention
and decision making - perhaps explaining the inability to decide what to throw
out and to keep with a clean-up task.
He suspects structural problems in the brain may also play a role and is
researching that possibility.