What Causes Hoarding?

Erin J. Hill

It is not fully understood what causes hoarding, although it is thought that it has something to do with a chemical imbalance in the brain, much like many other personality and mental disorders. Those who hoard often have an unusually strong emotional attachment to their possessions. Sometimes this stems from a loss, from feelings of emptiness, or from past experiences of not having enough of something. This may cause the person to fanatically collect new things to fill a void or to refuse to throw old things away.

There are various treatment options that may help manage compulsive hoarding.
There are various treatment options that may help manage compulsive hoarding.

The primary factor which causes hoarding, according to most theories, is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Every person has certain chemicals that are released in order to create certain reactions in the body. One chemical may respond to good things that happen and create a “feel good” response. Other chemicals, such as adrenaline, may come in response to danger and causes changes in the body such as fear, pounding heart rate, and increased sense of alertness. These chemicals have purposes, such as creating a bond between people, or allowing one to flee from danger.

Excessive shopping can be part of obsessive compulsive hoarding.
Excessive shopping can be part of obsessive compulsive hoarding.

Hoarding and other mental disorders occur when these chemicals are released at inappropriate times or in incorrect amounts. For instance, an average person may feel a little sad at having to throw a treasured item out. Someone who hoards things, however, will feel incredibly anxious or may become fearful that something bad will happen without the item.

Although chemicals are part of the problem that causes hoarding, there are other causes to factor in. Many individuals have a trigger event which causes hoarding tendencies to emerge. For instance, someone who has lost a family member may begin to obsessively collect items that remind him of his loved one. This could be various versions of the person’s favorite animal or toy, such as stuffed bears or china dolls. Many hoarders have various collections of specific items, along with large amounts of additional unrelated items.

Hoarders may or may not realize that their collections are excessive. Even when there is no room left in their homes to walk, eat, or sleep, many hoarders continue to insist that there is no problem. Others understand the magnitude of their problem, but feel helpless to solve it.

The main treatment for compulsive hoarding is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It is not enough to simply remove the items from a hoarder’s possession, because he or she will inevitably go and buy more things to replace them. Many sufferers from this condition feel overwhelming anxiety at the thought of losing their things, and facing this anxiety is often the key to becoming well.

Therapy may help hoarders to slowly relinquish items that are not of any value, such as old newspapers or trash. Eventually, they may be willing to get rid of more valuable items by donating them or giving them to someone close. Finally, once the anxiety has lessened by accomplishing these smaller steps, hoarders may be able to scale down their things to a reasonable level.

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Discussion Comments


@mrwormy- You have to understand that these people have serious mental health issues that go beyond depression or anxiety. The reason they break down during the cleaning out process is that they think their entire world is collapsing. That would freak just about anyone out. There are a lot of causes for hoarding, and I think sometimes these shows don't do a very good job of helping viewers understand hoarding as an illness.

I once volunteered to help clean out an elderly neighbor's house after she was moved to a nursing home, and it turned out she was a hoarder. They think she became that way after her husband was killed during the Korean War. She couldn't let go of anything she could relate to him, and she would have panic attacks if any of her relatives tried to clear out a room. She felt like throwing away those things was like throwing away the memory of her husband. It was a sad situation.


I can barely stand to watch those TV shows about hoarding, because I can't handle seeing that much filth all at once. I can understand why people might want to hold onto things for sentimental reasons, but I don't understand why they'd want to live in squalor when there are people who can help with cleaning.

I see some of these hoarders have panic attacks at the thought of giving up something so trivial, but I guess I don't understand all of the history behind those things. I don't know if I could throw out some things from my own childhood myself, but I don't know if I would have a mental breakdown like the people on those shows.

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