What causes hoarding?
No one knows exactly what causes hoarding. There are lots of theories and different people will have different explanations for their own experiences. It’s likely to be a combination of things.
“After a divorce and house move, as a single mum working full-time suffering from depression on and off for years I didn’t have the energy to face throwing things away, especially baby clothes and toys, and my small apartment became increasingly full.”
Hoarding can be to do with difficult experiences and painful feelings, which you may be finding it hard to express, face or resolve.
Some people say hoarding helps them cope with other mental health problems, or distracts them from feeling very anxious, upset or afraid.
Perfectionism and worrying
Lots of people who hoard feel very worried about making mistakes (also known as perfectionism), or find it hard to make decisions, plan ahead or work out how to do tasks. These could be possible reasons why some people are more vulnerable to having problems with hoarding.
For example, you might struggle to sort or group your things into types, or to decide what to keep or throw away. The idea of this might seem so difficult or upsetting that it feels easier not to try.
Some researchers believe hoarding can be linked to childhood experiences of losing or not having possessions, or not being cared for. This might include experiences like:
- money worries and living in poverty
- having your belongings taken or thrown away
- being deprived or neglected – for example if your basic needs weren’t met, or you weren’t treated warmly or supportively.
See our pages on money and mental health for more information on the relationship between money worries and mental health.
“It was like she built a wall of stuff to keep everyone out. Having experienced several traumatic events in her life: the loss of her baby (while her father was dying), a terrible divorce, her partner having a heart attack and finally the death of her mother. No-one could hurt her if she was protected by all of this stuff.”
Trauma and loss
You might be able to link the start of your hoarding to a stressful event or period in your life, such as:
- being abused or attacked
- breaking up with a partner
- becoming very unwell
- someone close to you dying
- feeling extremely lonely.
For some people, experiences like these can also lead to an increase in existing hoarding.
“I can pinpoint it to the death of her mother (my Nana) when she moved all of her belongings into her own home. This was almost 25 years ago.”
Family history or habits
It’s common for people who hoard to have family members who share this, such as a parent or sibling. Some studies suggest this could be due to shared genes, or that your genes could make you more vulnerable to hoarding.
But family links are likely to be much more complex and shared environments could also be a factor. For example, you might have learned habits and behaviours from your parents or carers, including ways of arranging and managing your home and belongings.
If you live together with people who also hoard, this can result in you having more clutter in your home overall. It might be especially difficult to make changes because you disagree with each other on what to keep or throw away.
“Where did the tendency towards hoarding come from? Now that’s the six million dollar question! My parents were full of stories of their parents and grandparents’ deprivations, it was part of my world view growing up, and I know that chronic disorganisation multiplies the impact of every extra item I have.”
Other mental health problems
You might start hoarding due to another mental health problem, for example:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- bipolar disorder
- psychosis, including schizophrenia
- obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).
In these situations, hoarding is usually seen as a symptom and not your main diagnosis. You might also hoard alongside addiction to recreational drugs or alcohol.