Is Hoarding an Addiction or Purely a Compulsive Behavior?

When More Isn’t Enough

Help for Hoarders
by D.J. Moran and Jennifer L. Patterson
Is there a difference?
Published on March 2, 2011

What comes to mind when you read the word “addiction?”

Does it make you think of repetitive use of alcohol and drugs despite negative consequences?

Or do you think of shopping, sexual activity, video games, and gambling at an alarmingly high rate?

How about “compulsive hoarding?”

Is hoarding an addiction or purely a compulsive behavior? I asked myself this question after watching my colleague Dr. D.J. Moran on Animal Planet’s Confessions: Animal Hoarding episode entitled “Chickens in My Home.” This episode featured two individuals who hoard animals. My colleague Dr. D.J. worked with Kitten, a married woman who amassed a large population of cats.

During the intervention stage D.J. stated, “In this case, I see Kitten’s form of hoarding as an addiction.” This got me thinking… is it accurate to classify hoarding as an addiction? Are they the same thing? Can a client have one but not the other? I gave it some thought and decided that I think they’re not the same thing and here’s why…

Here’s what we know…

• Compulsions are “Repetitive behaviors or mental acts that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession, or according to the rules that must be applied rigidly. The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent or are clearly excessive. .. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effect of a substance” (DSM IV-TR).

• Addiction is a “compulsive, uncontrollable dependence on a chemical substance, habit, or practice to such a degree that obtaining or ceasing use may cause severe emotional, mental, or physiologic reactions” (Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 2009).

Psychological distinctions

When considering how hoarding and addiction are different I first examined the psychological distinctions. The process of developing and maintaining an addiction is often dependent on pleasure as a reward. Most addicted individuals initially seek out the behavior or substance because it generates pleasure. The addiction is typically maintained by positive reinforcement. On the other hand, compulsive behaviors are often engaged in to alleviate pain and discomfort. Although a hoarder may initially experience excitement when acquiring items, the behavior is typically maintained in an attempt to decrease psychological pain.

Neurobiological distinctions

Hoarding and addictions are also different in how they affect the brain and brain functions. Some experts now believe that continued addiction can cause persistent changes in brain structure and function (Hyman & Malenka, 2001; Leshner, 1997). Prolonged engagement in substance or behavioral addiction changes the structural and molecular makeup of the brain. However, there is no evidence at this time suggesting that hoarding also causes changes in the anatomy of the brain.  Interestingly however, it has been found that specific brain anomalies are associated with higher incidence of abnormal hoarding behaviors (SK et al., 2009). MRI studies suggest that damage to the frontal lobe of the brain may lead to abnormal hoarding behaviors that were not present before the damage occurred (SK et al., 2009).

Addictive substances like amphetamines, cocaine, and morphine increase the amount of dopamine in the synapses triggering a reward and reinforcement response (Hyman & Malenks, 2001). Similarly, addictive behaviors such as gambling have a drug-like effect on the brain. Studies indicate the brain’s blood flow in a pathological gambler anticipating a win changes much like that in the brain of a cocaine and morphine user (Goodman, 2008; Holden, 2005). Another distinction between addiction and compulsive behaviors, like hoarding, is the existence of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms. These processes do not appear to occur in the brain of individuals who compulsively hoard.