Hoarding is a recurring difficulty releasing or discarding one’s belongings regardless of the item’s actual worth. It’s more than just clinging sentimentally to a few items — hoarding often comes with negative effects to the emotional or physical health of one’s self or one’s family. Hoarding is a disorder on its own, but it can also be a symptom of other conditions, namely obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
When is it collecting, and when is it hoarding? And how do you know if hoarding is related to OCD? Let’s take a closer look at hoarding and OCD, how these conditions are connected and what you can do about it.
It may seem as if someone with a large collection of specific items is hoarding, but that’s not always the case. Collecting is different from hoarding. Collectors keep their items organized, and perhaps even prominently displayed in an organized manner. They often feel pride over these possessions, maybe even widely sharing and showing them off.
Someone who hoards items typically doesn’t organize them — they’re often accumulated chaotically, sometimes even taking up otherwise livable space. Hoarders may feel ashamed of their accumulation of possessions and try to hide their clutter. Many times, someone who hoards will find themselves in financial debt or living in dangerous conditions. Symptoms of hoarding may indicate an underlying issue, such as OCD.
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Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a mental health condition that consists of cycles of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions appear in the form of unwanted or intrusive thoughts that cause significant emotional distress. Compulsions are mental acts or behaviors someone with obsessions engages in to try to rid themselves of distressing, obsessive thoughts. In those with OCD, obsessive thoughts often appear, then trigger a compulsion.
Those with OCD may act on this compulsion in an effort to rid themselves of their unwanted thoughts or ease their anxiety, but it occurs in a cycle. When a distressing thought continuously arises, they may become stuck acting on compulsions over and over again. Symptoms of OCD can be debilitating and often impact home life, school, relationships, work life and more. Seeking treatment early can help to minimize impact of OCD symptoms.
Hoarding disorder is one of the diagnoses that is closely related to OCD and symptoms of hoarding can be commonplace. Many people have clutter, a junk drawer in their kitchen or office, or may keep extra unneeded items (e.g., clothes that they don’t wear). However, if someone has persistent difficulty getting rid of items that other people see as worthless, constantly finds themselves struggling to throw out things that are taking up valuable living space to the extent that areas of the home are unusable, is losing important items like bills or money in the clutter, or if they’re feeling immensely negative about the items they have accumulated, it may be time to consider that this is hoarding or hoarding disorder.
Sometimes, hoarding is a compulsion associated with traditional OCD symptoms. For example, someone with OCD-related hoarding may have trouble throwing away items because they fear something bad will happen if they throw them away, or they worry that they may desperately need those items later. They may also be afraid of discarding possessions because they’re afraid to touch them for fear of bacteria or germs on the surface. People with OCD-related hoarding may compulsively buy things to quell uncomfortable thoughts or fears as well. In short, people with OCD might hoard as a way to neutralize uncomfortable intrusive thoughts.
It’s been estimated that 1 in 4 people with OCD also have compulsive hoarding, and research has shown that 1 in 5 compulsive hoarders have other OCD symptoms. The good news for those with hoarding that results from OCD is that the symptoms of OCD are highly treatable.
If you suspect that you or someone you know is hoarding as a result of OCD, the best thing to do is seek a therapist with experience or training for patients with OCD. You may even want to try to find a therapist that specifically has experience with OCD-related hoarding and exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is the gold standard of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the treatment of OCD, and it works by exposing those with OCD to their triggers within a safe and controlled environment to help them learn how to avoid engaging in their compulsions.
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The goal of ERP is to help those with OCD resist their compulsive behaviors and allow them to live their lives more freely. Finding the right therapist to treat OCD-related hoarding may take some time, but it’s never been more accessible than it is today. With the rise of online counseling and teletherapy options, patients can now see therapists specializing in OCD from the comfort of their own homes.
NOCD offers a nationwide network of ERP-certified therapists that offer teletherapy and one-on-one video therapy sessions. You can schedule a call with the NOCD clinical team anytime to learn more and get started.