Under the Clutter: The Psychology Behind Hoarding

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If a stranger would have entered Laura Glasgow’s house last year, they would have been shocked beyond belief.

Some may pass her home off as simply "messy" or "disorganized," but the truth is, Glasgow, 34, of Wilson, N.C., has an anxiety disorder known as hoarding – an excessive collection of items and the inability to get rid of them.

Glasgow, who once had floor-to-ceiling boxes in her house, hoarded everything — clothes, toys for her children, crafts and furniture. In a small house — made even smaller by Glasgow's "collection," — something had to give. Glasgow had so much stuff, the family of five had trouble maneuvering through the clutter.

Slideshow: Inside the House of Hoarders

"It’s a debilitating condition where they accumulate clutter to the point of impairment," said Dr. Julie Pike, a psychologist at Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Durham, N.C., of hoarding. "We estimate 2 million people in the U.S. have this problem, but we can’t be exactly sure because people who hoard are very secretive about it."

Going to Extremes

The first extreme case of hoarding came to light in 1947, when police found Homer and Langley Collyer dead inside their Fifth Avenue brownstone in Harlem, N.Y. According to the New York Press, Langley Collyer had transformed their house into a fortress with packing boxes and cartons in interlocking tiers with hidden tunnels. He hoarded thousands of newspapers, books, furniture, clothes, toys – you name it. He had hoarded so much stuff; the house was starting to buckle under the weight of it all, and Langley was buried alive while trying to bring his brother food.

Glasgow’s problem is not so severe, but she knew it was getting worse, so she decided to seek help for her problem by contacting The Learning Channel (TLC). Her story will be featured Sunday on the popular television series "Hoarding: Buried Alive." The show provided her with a therapist – Pike – and an organizer, who helped Glasgow sort through her stuff and clean up her house.

For some people, the clutter becomes so bad, they cannot even leave their own home. When there isn’t any more room to hoard in the house, hoarders may spread their collection to the yard, garage and sometimes to their vehicles.

Some people don’t hoard material possessions; instead they hoard animals, which can create unsanitary living conditions. The Humane Society of the United States estimates 250,000 animals suffer from animal hoarding each year, and the Cummings School of Medicine at Tufts University has reported incidences of as many as 1,000 animals living in single-family homes.

In Treatment

Glasgow got help for her problem, which Pike likens to alcoholism – it’s something that will haunt Glasgow for life. It will be up to her how she deals with it.

Glasgow admits her problem became worse after her third child was born and she suffered postpartum depression. She and her husband had moved for his job, and she felt isolated.

"I didn’t have any adult contact, there wasn’t any support system," she said. "That really made the problem explosive."

Incidentally, the Mayo Clinic’s website lists isolation as a trigger for hoarding. Other triggers and risk factors include genetics, stressful life events, age and perfectionism.

"Contrary to popular belief, hoarders are not lazy – they are extreme perfectionists," Pike said.

Glasgow said shopping provided her with a reason to leave the house. So, she convinced herself the family always needed something and pretty soon she was buying more than she could fit in the house.

When the children started making friends, they couldn’t invite them over for play dates, Glasgow explained, because the house was so cluttered, which made her feel guilty – so she bought even more toys for the kids to ease her guilt.

"I was so desperate for help," Glasgow said. "It was a horrible situation."

It’s not known why hoarders develop this kind of problem, but Pike said researchers think it has to do with both nature and nurture.

"We found an abnormality on a chromosome," Pike said. "The other piece is in the brain. The part of the brain that is involved in decision making is different in people who hoard. They do it to avoid the distress of having to make the decision of whether to let go of something."

Pike, who worked with Glasgow on the show, treated her with exposure therapy, a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Exposure therapy is exactly what it sounds like – exposing the person to the thought, behavior or feeling that the person has been trying to avoid, Pike said.

"In this case, we exposed her to the distress of what her hoarding was doing to her family," Pike said. "She said, ‘I’m robbing my kids.’ And the other thing was exposing her physically to the distress of discarding her possessions. The strategy is always to try and increase distress on purpose instead of making them feel better. What happens, they learn once they stop trying to avoid that feeling, it goes away."

To learn more about Laura Glasgow and the psychology behind hoarding, watch "Hoarding: Buried Alive" at 9 p.m. Sunday on TLC.