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Hoarding: When Clutter Goes Extreme

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Obssessive Compulsive Behaviors Part of Hoarding- photo by Thomas Haemmerli

Hoarding is a condition often diagnosed as an obsessive compulsive behavior; but it also shares some symptoms of an ADHD diagnosis.  Hoarding is a condition often not taken seriously until it has gotten completely out of control. At times, hoarders are the center of family jokes and referred to as “pack rats.” Unfortunately, family members or friends may not try to step in until the condition has gotten so out of hand there are safety and legal issues involved. 

Hoarders May Exhibit Symptoms of ADHD

When looked at from a psychological point of view; hoarders exhibit impairment in their executive functioning, much the same as those diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  These higher-level functions integrate, prioritize, and coordinate other brain functions. Looking at the behavior of hoarders it is easy to compare their actions with those of adults with ADHD.

According to Dr. Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College and expert in the field of hoarding and clutter, there are three fundamental aspects to hoarding and clutter: Acquisition, Saving, and Disorganization.  Each of those is in and of themselves, normal behavior. However, when applied to the hoarder, something has gone terribly wrong; the executive functioning of the brain has become impaired. Hoarders may purchase items out of fear; fear the item will be needed some day, or the sale will never happen again; or they may not remember the item has been previously purchased. In many cases the item is totally useless for the hoarder, yet it is still purchased.

With an overabundance of purchases comes the saving of those items. Hoarders don’t simply save items they purchase; they often times save items of junk or trash. However, these items have specific meaning for hoarders. What others see as a collection of bottle caps, may be a decade of memories for the hoarders who cannot let go of the collection.

Broken toys, appliances, all things the average person might throw away, become additions to the pile of things that need to be fixed, but the hoarder never quite “gets around to it.” This has to do not so much with procrastination as it does with prioritizing. Hoarders like adults with ADHD have difficulty prioritizing and with this comes the difficulty of decision making regarding the items. To the hoarder, broken things will get fixed eventually, so best to save them for when that happens.

Inevitably, with all the saving and piling up of things; organization is not going to happen. Even when a hoarder attempts to organize; the effort is waylaid by the distraction of memories associated with items. Again, the executive functioning of the brain malfunctions, the hoarder is not able to prioritize and thus organize. The items will not be discarded but will most likely end up in another pile of “special things” which will soon be forgotten. 

Treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Savers

Treating hoarders is difficult. Family members and friends may find themselves embroiled in legal battles or situations that can severe relationships.   Most hoarders have feelings of shame; refusing to allow entry into their homes even for repairs; and often will not ask for help. Many do not see their hoarding as a problem and even thinking about tossing something brings great anxiety. 

Family members often feel angry, resentful, and powerless. When family members decide to step in and take charge, they often don’t know where to start. The resistance from the hoarder may be overwhelming.   Recommended treatment (cognitive-behavioral therapy with a therapist) can be costly.   Some family members have been advised if the hoarders

Getting rid of Clutter - photo by Celeste Lindell
are not a danger to themselves or others, “leave them be.”

 In some cases, family members decide to intervene by taking things out a little at a time without the hoaders’ knowledge; or barging in and taking charge and start tossing things in the trash. Both of those scenarios are ill advised due to the trauma it will inevitably cause the hoarders.

 First and foremost, the hoarders need to agree to at least minimal assistance. Whenever possible, it is in the best interest of all to involve a professional. Start with a professional organizer or “declutterer.” This field is opening up in recent years and there are companies that will assist in removing the clutter from homes. Professional organizers can assist in helping the hoarders make the necessary decisions to declutter their homes.

 Since hoarders don’t often believe they have a problem, it may be difficult to get them to acknowledge they need help. Once that obstacle is overcome; the hoarders will benefit from a therapist who specializes in obsessive compulsive or ADHD behaviors.  Depression and anxiety may be prevalent for the hoarder, during the cleaning process and afterwards.  Another option is to assist the hoarder by acquiring the services of a life coach.

While procuring these helpers for the hoarder may be costly; in the long run, it may save the health and very life of the hoarder.



Rd.com. “The Hoarding Syndrome—When Clutter Goes Out of Control.” (accessed March 10, 2010).

 Mayoclinic.com. Definition of Hoarding (accessed March 10, 2010).

 Millsconsulting.com. “Hoarding and Clutter.” (accessed March 10, 2010).



The copyright of the article “Hoarding: When Clutter Goes Extreme” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.



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