Signs you could be a hoarder and how to stop

Woman who is experiencing hoarding behaviour. (Getty Images)
Between 1.3 – 3.3 million people in the UK are impacted by hoarding. (Getty Images)

We're all guilty of holding onto items we no longer want or need - old concert tickets, the slightly too big shoes you bought five years ago and have still never worn and every piece of art/scribble your child did at nursery.

But if you find yourself regularly tripping over your clutter, unable to perform typical every day tasks or feeling overwhelmed by the space it is taking up in your home and your head, you may have a problem with hoarding.

Different to just collecting stuff, hoarding is actually way more common than you might think impacting approximately 2-5% of the population – that is potentially between 1.3 – 3.3 million people in the UK affected.

Back in 2018 hoarding was classified as a medical disorder for the first time by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a move psychiatrists hoped would help the NHS identify those struggling with hoarding disorder.

In order to mark the end of National Hoarding Awareness Week (13-17 May 2024) we spoke to the experts about recognising the signs you may a problem with hoarding and how to overcome it.

When it classified it as a medical condition the WHO defined hoarding disorder as being "characterised by accumulation of possessions due to excessive acquisition of, or difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their actual value".

It adds: "Accumulation of possessions results in living spaces becoming cluttered to the point that their use or safety is compromised.

"The symptoms result in significant distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning."

Excessive clutter can make it hard to do every day things many take for granted, such as eating at the table or sleeping in bed.

Cluttered home. (Getty Images)
Extreme hoarding can impact every day life. (Getty Images)

In the most serious hoarding cases, homes can become unsanitary, either because it has become impossible to clean or because the person's clutter has made it so.

In rare cases extreme hoarding may also cause a danger to life. In 2022 the London fire brigade attended over 1,000 hoarding-related fires – events that led to over 180 injuries, and tragically, 10 deaths.

People who hoard (and their families) can feel a sense of shame and often don’t get the support they need.

It is worth noting, however, that not everyone who is living amongst an abundance of items and clutter would be given the diagnosis of ‘hoarding disorder’.

Experts say hoarding behaviour can stem from a range of issues some psychological, behavioural and some practical.

Megan Karnes, founder/chair of HoardingUK the UK National Charity supporting people who hoard says hoarding behaviour is a complex, co-morbid mental health issue which typically involves a subjective trauma triggering what is framed clinically as Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorder.

"Despite being a highly intelligent group, the distress caused by attempting to discard overwhelms the person’s ability to do so," she adds.

While it is not known exactly what causes hoarding Sarah Miles, Mind’s head of information content says there are lots of theories.

"Different people will have different reasons for their own experiences, and it's likely to be due to a combination of factors," she explains.

“For some of us, hoarding might be a coping mechanism to manage difficult feelings. We might have anxious thoughts that mean it’s hard to make decisions about getting rid of objects. Or we might be able to connect our hoarding to a traumatic event that has happened in our lives, to a physical health problem like dementia, or to a mental health problem."

Woman decluttering her home. (Getty Images)
Experts suggests starting small when tackling hoarding behaviours. (Getty Images)

As everyone will have a different experience of hoarding it can be difficult to spot the signs at first.

"Some of us who hoard do not know we are doing it, or we can’t see how it impacts our lives," Miles adds.

"However, it usually starts small and builds up over time."

Miles says you might be experiencing hoarding if you find it difficult to get rid of things you own. "Even if they aren't worth anything or you don’t have any space for them," she adds.

"You might not be able to use parts of your home because they're so cluttered, but the thought of getting rid of things causes you emotional distress.

"This could be impacting other areas of your life, such as your relationships with family or friends."

The NHS says someone who has a hoarding disorder may typically:

  • keep or collect items that may have little or no monetary value

  • find it hard to organise their items

  • have difficulty making decisions

  • struggle to manage everyday tasks, such as cooking, cleaning and paying bills

  • become extremely attached to items

  • have poor relationships with family or friends

Woman decluttering. (Getty Images)
Tackling hoarding behaviours can be life changing for those impacted. (Getty Images)

If you feel distressed by hoarding and it’s impacting on your day-to-day life, Miles suggest speaking to your GP. "They can talk to you about the support options available," she adds.

There are things you can do to help yourself cope too. “For example, you might find it helpful to start small, like throwing away one thing per day," Miles continues.

"You could make a plan, such as scheduling an hour per week for cleaning."

You might find it useful to come up with some rules, such as getting rid of items you haven’t used in the last year.

"Different rules work for different people, but these can help to make decisions easier,” Miles adds.

"Mind’s website includes lots of helpful information about hoarding, including some suggestions for ways you can manage it and any difficult feelings."

The NHS says the main treatment for hoarding disorder is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), where the therapist will help the person try to uncover what makes it difficult to throw things away and the reasons why the clutter has built up.

Anyone struggling with hoarding can refer themselves directly to an NHS talking therapies service without a referral from a GP.

Join the fight for mental health. Get involved in Mind’s campaign to make sure there is #NoMindLeftBehind.