Whether you are someone who lives around the piles of things you cannot throw away, you had an aunt who was too embarrassed to let anyone into her cluttered home or you have seen the TV show “Hoarders” – you know something about hoarding.
What is less known is the cause. Hoarding which involves thoughts, feelings and behavior and can be chalked off as eccentric or can be so extreme as to compromise living space, relationships, health and even life is not completely understood. It has usually been considered a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) but this does not fit for all hoarders. Few hoarders actually seek treatment.
What if hoarding behavior was actually a response to Trauma?
- The findings of a recent study reported in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders indicate that hoarding may not always be a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. Rather, it may be a separate disorder that results from the experience of trauma and stressful life events.
- Comparing three clinical groups: hoarding disorder without obsessive compulsive behavior, hoarding disorder with obsessive compulsive behavior, and obsessive compulsive behavior without hoarding, as well as a non-clinical control group,investigators, Landau, Lervolino and colleagues used interview and self-report questionnaires to determine hoarding behavior, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, traumatic events, material deprivation, work and social adjustment.
- Findings indicate that the hoarders reported the greatest exposure to traumatic and stressful events. Whereas the severity of obsessive-compulsive symptoms were unrelated or negatively correlated with a history of traumatic life events , over 50% of the hoarders linked initial hoarding symptoms to a traumatic or stressful event.
What Would This Mean?
It means we may be expanding our understanding of hoarding in a way that makes meaning to some trapped in this behavior, reduces shame, justifies help and even informs treatment options.
Much as know that the stress reactions of trauma i.e. the symptoms of hyperarousal, the intrusive images and flashbacks, and the numbing and constriction reflect a persistent survival response despite the fact that the danger has passed, hoarding behavior may represent an excessive need to guard against the loss inherent in traumatic events.
Hoarding Symptoms as Dysfunctional Solutions to Trauma
Hoarding behaviors gather clinical relevance when we consider them in terms of the impact of trauma.
Trauma always involves loss. Whether a traumatic event has threatened your life, robbed you of someone you love, or destroyed your community, it deprives you – suddenly and even violently – of what you had.
Hoarding is the excessive acquisition of things along with the inability to discard them. Perhaps as a way to offset the assault of sudden loss, people hoard items from papers to car parts that might have value or be needed in the future.
Reflective of personal loss, people often hoard items that have important emotional significance, reminders of happier times, beloved people, and pets. Often attachment to others has been replaced by attachment to things.
Trauma takes from you the sense of safety, predictability and trust you assumed and expected in life.
Perhaps the acquisition of items that cannot be discarded reflects a strong bond to objects that is far safer than a bond to people. Accordingly throwing away any of these objects will result in a profound sense of loss.
Inherent in Trauma is the loss of control, fear and helplessness.
Most hoarders rail against the need for help or the intrusion of someone who wants to help them clean up – even put things away. Help equates to a lack of control. Objects put out of sight may feel like objects lost forever. Objects of no value may be in piles with a forgotten letter or item of value. To let another help is anxiety producing as it means feeling helpless and risking negative consequences.
Central to Chronic Trauma or Stressful Events is a loss of confidence and mastery – a fear of mistakes.
Those struggling with hoarding often try unsuccessfully to get control but are chronically overwhelmed. They often can’t manage daily activities, often procrastinate or become consumed with a task that is irrelevant to their living situation. They can’t make decisions because decisions always involve the loss of the choice not made.
Trauma always involves shame and self-blame – Whether the victim of childhood abuse or natural disaster, humans would rather blame self than loss attachment or believe that life is arbitrary and beyond control.
While they persist in hoarding, most hoarders feel shame and are embarrassed by their surroundings. In some way they unwittingly become victims of their own abuse – their solution. Their excessive acquisition keeps them deprived of self-esteem, pride and control.
At the moment of Trauma most people feel existentially alone – cut off from man, God, from hope.
Eventually many hoarders become social isolates. Driving others away because of their hoarding, isolating with shame or avoidance of judgment, they are alone with the illusion of protection – things. The Collyer Brothers were found buried under 30 years of hoarding 170 tons of stuff. There were no people in their lives.
To respect the complexity of people is to know that in most cases they choose not to suffer. If we can add another dimension to understanding extreme and risky behavior we take a step towards some who cannot really step towards us.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowsky, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.