Shopping Addiction Explained
For many people, shopping is a harmless and often enjoyable activity, as well as being an unavoidable aspect of modern life. For some, however, it becomes an obsession, and then an addiction, which can end up costing them everything. Fortunately, our understanding of shopping addiction has grown more sophisticated in recent years, and various treatment options now exist which can help set sufferers back on the path to stability and happiness.
What is Shopping Addiction?
Shopping addiction, as with other behavioural addictions, is a disorder rooted in an imbalance in the brain’s reward centres, characterised by a compulsion to make new purchases constantly, regardless of whether or not the items being bought are necessary, and despite any negative impact such purchases and spending may have upon the addict’s well-being – financial or otherwise.
Though for most people shopping is seen as a harmless activity, for those suffering from a shopping addiction it can lead to financial ruin and destitution, and the collapse of important relationships and life prospects. Although shopping has traditionally been considered an activity carried out more by women than by men, and shopping addiction is typically portrayed by the media – if at all – as being an affliction to which women are much more susceptible, current research suggests that this may be a misconception derived primarily from long-standing attitudes towards gender roles. Nevertheless, it does appear that women are at least slightly more likely than men to develop the condition.
Recent studies show that around 3% of European adults, and 8% of European young people, may display a level of shopping addiction which could be regarded as pathological, while estimates for the proportion of the US population which may be afflicted range from between 2% and 12%. Because shopping addiction of necessity requires a relatively high degree of disposable income, it is assumed that incidents of the condition are significantly higher in the developed world, though research is ongoing into its prevalence elsewhere.
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Other names for shopping addiction
Shopping addiction is sometimes also known as compulsive buying disorder or oniomania (from the Greek for “for sale” and “insanity”) – though these terms are typically used within the medical community rather than within mainstream society, and technically refer to slightly different concepts. A person suffering from a shopping addiction is colloquially known as a “shopaholic”, though this term has no medical significance and is often used more loosely to describe someone who may go shopping – and spend – a great deal, but may not technically suffer from an addiction.
Shopping addiction versus substance addiction
Clearly, the primary difference between shopping addiction (and any other behavioural addiction) and substance addiction is that in the case of the former there is no external chemical influence being exerted upon the sufferer, and therefore no external substance upon which a sufferer can become physically dependent. However, not all addictive substances result in such physical dependence, and certain mechanisms underpinning addiction are the same for both behavioural addiction and some substance abuse disorders. Both involve imbalanced neurochemistry – in particular, in the brain’s reward centres – which drive repeated compulsive behaviour despite any possible detrimental effects to the addict.
Substance addiction is typically seen as a far greater personal and social ill, and poses many risks – especially those related to physical health – which are not applicable to cases of shopping addiction. Nevertheless, the latter can certainly lead to the destruction of an individual’s financial well-being specifically at least as easily, and potentially much more quickly, than can a substance abuse disorder, and can have just as serious ramifications for an addict’s relationships and life prospects, as well as proving extremely detrimental to their mental health.
Differentiating between compulsive and impulsive shopping
Compulsive and impulsive purchasing are often confused, and many people use the terms interchangeably; however, they refer to two different impulses, with very different meanings and ramifications.
Impulsive shopping – or impulse buying – refers to a sudden and potentially overwhelming urge to buy something immediately: typically, an individual consumer encounters a specific product, either “in the flesh” or online, and is seized by an immediate desire to purchase it, even if they haven’t been looking for that product at that point. It is the desire to possess the product in question that drives impulse buying, rather than the act of purchasing itself.
Compulsive shopping, on the other hand, is driven by the urge to purchase, rather than to possess. Compulsive shoppers may have comparatively little interest in the items they are buying, and even little or no use for them; nevertheless, the act of purchasing provides a release of psychological tension which builds up during periods of not making any purchases. Some compulsive shoppers focus their spending upon a particular class of items – for example, clothing, jewellery, technology et cetera – while for others purchasing can be spread across a broad range of items, potentially including absolutely anything for sale.
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Why Shopping Addicts Keep Spending Their Money
Like someone with a substance abuse disorder, a shopping addict experiences cravings which intensify as time passes and which can only be dispelled by feeding their addiction, in this case specifically by buying. An inability to make purchases – whether because of a lack of money, a lack of access to shops (with a bricks and mortar or online) or for any other reason – contributes to an ever-increasing build-up of tension which only dissipates when purchasing is resumed – and which in the more serious and complex cases can begin to build again very shortly after purchases are made (demonstrating the true irrelevance of the specific items purchased).
This tension and associated negative feelings can also be created and exacerbated by events and experiences affecting the addict’s mood – for example, an argument with a loved one or an awkward situation at work may leave the addict feeling unhappy, frustrated and anxious, feelings which they may feel consciously or unconsciously will be dispelled by the relief of buying.
Again, this is similar to the ways in which some external factors can drive a drug addict into engaging in substance abuse, though in the case of shopping addiction any relief the addict may feel result purely from the neurochemical results of their behaviour rather than from the psychopharmaceutical effects of any substance consumed.
Types of Shopping Addiction
As noted above, shopping addicts can focus their efforts upon one class of product, several, or upon any product at all: literally any item for sale could theoretically attract the attention of a shopping addict. One addict may obsessively purchase tech products; another could collect clothes; another may be overwhelmed by the drive to purchase cars or motorbikes; yet another could walk into a department store and make a range of purchases on every level. As with any case of addiction, each individual story is unique.
However, in practice many shopping addicts can be placed in any one of several informal categories (which are not, it is important to recognise, part of any medically approved diagnostic scheme) according to certain aspects of their behaviour. These categories might be described as follows:
- Bargain-seekers: these addicts will compulsively buy products which are on sale, or which for any other reason can be bought for less than their listed price or perceived value. It is the feeling of obtaining or “winning” a good deal which provides relief from the addiction.
- Show-offs: such addicts derive their reward from the impression they make on others through high-value purchases. In some such cases, the individual’s self-worth is closely linked to their ability to demonstrate financial extravagance.
- Trophy hunters: these addicts search for the best – not necessarily the most expensive – and/or rarest items to buy. The quest, and the satisfaction gained at its conclusion, are fundamental elements of the addictive behaviour.
- Collectors: these addicts seek out different iterations or versions of the same item; different component parts of a set or series of items; or similar items within one particular class of product. The addiction here is fuelled by the act of collecting, and potentially by the desire for completionism.
- Self-medicators: these individuals turn to shopping as a way of dealing with negative moods, difficult situations etc. They may have little or no interest in what they are buying specifically: it is simply the act of purchasing itself which provides relief.
- Shopping bulimics: just as individuals suffering from bulimia nervosa gorge themselves on food before purging themselves to ensure that they do not retain the high number of calories that they have initially consumed, so do “shopping bulimics” make large and/or frequent purchases before returning them in order to receive refunds, to ensure that their original behaviour has few or no lasting financial consequences.
Stages of a Shopping Addiction
As always, it is vital to remember that – as noted above – every case of addiction is unique, and although obviously many commonalities might be observed, we have to be careful about creating any “checklist” of stages of an addiction, as any given case may not fit such a scheme.
Having said that, a rough guideline to the progression of addiction can be useful in various ways, including as a prompt to those self-identifying as shopping addicts, or who are concerned that they may have developed an addiction, to see how serious they feel their own condition may be.
The June 2014 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction contained an article by researchers Sang-Hee Sohn and Yun-Jung Choi entitled ‘Phases of Shopping Addiction Evidenced by Experiences of Compulsive Buyers’. In this article, the authors identified five possible sequential stages of shopping addiction, characterised by behaviours and drivers (summed up in the article abstract in short phrases taken from the testimonies of interviewees):
- Retail therapy: “Filling up emptiness with shopping”
- Denial: “Ignoring overconsumption”
- Debt-ridden: “Ran out of money, while nothing left”
- Impulsive buying: “Driving oneself to hasty buying”
- Compulsive buying: “It is crazy but I cannot stop”
Although we should be wary of placing too much emphasis on only one study – and although it’s important to reiterate that this progression should not be taken as being universally applicable – the authors present a fascinating description of the symptoms and effects upon addicts of each phase in turn:
“In the first phase, participants’ shopping addiction was initiated by retail therapy, which soothed underlying negative moods of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and feelings of deprivation. Through shopping, in the second phase, they felt independent, welcomed from the sales associates, were the recipients of envious gazes, and experienced anticipation until receiving the products, an escape from reality, and a sense of freedom. In the third phase, those behaviours created financial problems and familial crisis, which increased the level of stress, which could prompt more shopping. Participants still denied and minimised the negative consequences of retail shopping, and family members neglected or enabled the problematic shopping. In the fourth phase, the buying behaviour turned into impulsive, out-of-control buying. In the fifth phase, they fell into compulsive buying, which progressed in severity to become an addiction.” (Sang-Hee Sohn and Yun-Jung Choi, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, June 2014)
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Causes of Shopping Addiction
As with every form of behavioural addiction – indeed, of addiction generally – research into the precise causes of shopping addiction is ongoing. The neurochemical mechanisms underpinning addiction are increasingly well – though still imperfectly – understood, but there remains a good deal of debate around what exactly causes those mechanisms to manifest in some individuals and not in others. However, it is generally accepted that both genetic and environmental factors are in play – indeed, recent research suggests that each of these account for approximately half of a person’s overall risk of developing addiction.
As mentioned earlier, research into the phenomenon of shopping addiction in the developing world is comparatively immature, but most experts believe that the condition is currently much more prevalent in the developed world. This may seem obvious in that it is here that the majority of the world’s wealth is concentrated; where levels of disposable income of the sort necessary to maintain high levels of spending are typically found; where people enjoy the greatest opportunities for spending in the form of a large number and variety of shops, and widespread access to the internet and digital payment platforms; and where consumerism is most deeply entrenched. However, a more sophisticated understanding of how the phenomenon manifests in the developing world will help researchers identify the extent to which those factors are – or are not – fundamental causes of shopping addiction, rather than mere facilitators of it.
Risk Factors for Shopping Addiction
Once again, there is no absolute consensus within the medical community regarding the causes of behavioural addiction, though it is generally accepted that genetic and environmental factors play roughly equal roles. However, several risk factors have been identified and generally accepted as typically greatly increasing the likelihood of the development of shopping addiction in any given individual.
- Gender: although research suggests that any gender imbalance in the manifestation of shopping addiction is nowhere near as biased towards women as mainstream opinion may have it, it does seem that women are at least slightly more susceptible than men to developing the disorder.
- Age: although shopping addiction typically requires a comparatively high degree of disposable income, nevertheless some recent research shows that young people are significantly more likely to be affected than their older peers, with at least one study putting the average age of a shopping addict at 30.
- Co-occurring disorders/dual diagnosis: individuals with a(nother) mental health problem and/or a substance abuse disorder are significantly more likely than average to develop a shopping addiction.
- Family history: individuals brought up in households featuring shopping addicts, people with other addictions, and/or people with other mental health problems, are themselves much more at risk than the average of suffering from shopping addiction.
- Loneliness: people who do not feel that they have close and meaningful relationships – romantic or otherwise – with others are at a heightened risk of developing both behavioural and substance addictions. Shopping addiction is a particularly prominent danger for any such people who attempt to substitute material goods and acquisition for emotional fulfilment.
- Outlook/world view: individuals who place a high value on materialism and financial success are much more likely to succumb to shopping addiction than those who place a greater priority on creative endeavours, emotional fulfilment, spiritual development and other goals and drivers.
Shopping Addiction Self-Assessment Test
A number of self-assessment tests are marketed – especially online – for behavioural addictions including shopping addiction. These are typically of dubious origin, with little or no research behind them and of negligible medical value, and unfortunately are often used to initiate scams including unlawful data capture and even blackmail. Though some may be harmless, or even possibly beneficial in some way, as a rule of thumb it is always best to ignore such tests and instead get a proper diagnosis from a GP, or speak with a professional addiction specialist.
Signs & Symptoms of Shopping Addiction
Addiction in any form is typically a very secretive disorder: an addict may go to great lengths to conceal their condition from others, driven possibly by a sense of shame, a fear that their behaviour may be curtailed (and thus their thrills and “highs” taken from them), concerns that public knowledge of their addiction might negatively impact their professional or academic circumstances and reputation, or perhaps a simple reluctance to confront the reality of their situation.
In the case of shopping addiction – unlike, for instance, many substance abuse disorders, and some behavioural addictions and related conditions such as eating disorders – there may be few if any visible effects upon a sufferer’s physical health by which their addiction might be identified. The signs and symptoms of shopping addiction are much more likely to be emotional and behavioural in nature, and to manifest by way of their impact upon an addict’s life circumstances.
The secretive behaviour mentioned above can be, ironically, one of the most obvious signs of shopping addiction – if the secrecy is discovered (for example, if the addict is caught in lies or if their furtive behaviour is recognised). They may become agitated, anxious or even aggressive if confronted about their shopping, or if their financial condition is questioned. Approaching them about the situation may also trigger distress, despair and other manifestations of emotional volatility, especially if they have reached a point of serious financial difficulty, or if their addiction is having an impact on others.
Shopping addicts unable to make purchases – through lack of access to shopping, through being made to engage in other activities or carry out other obligations, or being denied access to money – can also get extremely agitated and irritable, and may find normal social interaction increasingly difficult. They may snap or lash out suddenly, or the other extreme become morose and taciturn.
Over the longer term, especially in cases where addiction has taken a large financial toll, depression and a range of other disorders including anxiety and insomnia, can also manifest as a result of a shopping addiction. Such disorders can have their own identifiable symptoms, and in some cases can even lead to self-harm or suicide.
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Shopping addiction itself typically does not cause any physical symptoms – though high levels of stress which can result from addiction may lead to issues such as physical tics and muscle spasms, and even to high blood pressure and subsequent health conditions. As mentioned above, some addicts may also self-harm which may lead to visible wounds, while related conditions such as insomnia may also leave visible signs.
Shopping Addiction and the Brain
Shopping addiction is a behavioural addiction, which is a disorder of the brain’s reward system. Regular exposure to an addictive stimulus such as shopping sparks the production of quantities of chemical called dopamine in the brain, which affects certain receptors – in particular, in parts of the brain referred to as the ventral tegmental area and the amygdala – creating positive sensations when that behaviour is repeated.
Over time, the brain chemistry rebalances and the individual develops a tolerance to these elevated levels of dopamine, and feels the compulsion to repeat the behaviour increasingly frequently – and potentially to engage in more extreme versions of that behaviour (in the case of shopping, this may include spending ever greater sums of money, buying more items, spending more time shopping, and other trends).
If the behaviour is not engaged in, the lack of stimulus of the reward centres leads to negative emotions and sensations, and to cravings to repeat the behaviour – i.e., to go shopping or to make purchases in other ways. This will continue until either the behaviour is repeated, or until enough time has passed that the brain has once again rebalanced and, now, normalised, and the immediate pressures of the addiction have been relieved. Even after this point cravings may strike for months or even years, and ongoing therapy may be required in order to develop coping mechanisms.
Shopping Addiction and Mental Health
As noted earlier, as well as being a mental disorder itself shopping addiction is connected with numerous other disorders, either contributing to the development of the addiction or resulting from it.
Individuals with existing mental health disorders are significantly more likely to develop behavioural addictions, including shopping addictions, according to most research. Especially susceptible are people with conditions such as mood disorders which can leave them feeling sad, anxious, or in any other way which can be alleviated, albeit temporarily, by the experience of making purchases. Sufferers of bipolar disorder, especially, are also more frequently affected than the average by shopping addiction, typically bingeing during manic states.
The development of addiction itself, and the experience of living with addiction and its consequences, can also have serious mental health issues. Again, depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are far from rare in those suffering from shopping addiction, as the impact of the addiction on their daily lives, relationships, and life and financial prospects takes its toll.
Depression and shopping addiction
Depression is one of the disorders most commonly associated with shopping addiction, and probably the most common co-occurring disorder. It can be a factor in the development of the addiction as people turn to shopping in an attempt to stave off depression, as well as stemming from it as the increasing stress of the shopping addiction, and the problems caused by compulsive spending – especially spending beyond one’s means – have ever more profound psychological consequences. Treatment for shopping addiction frequently also involves treating depression, and as with other cases of dual diagnosis this can lead to more complex and protracted treatment, though the established pharmaceutical solutions to depression can certainly help in such cases.
Substance Abuse and Shopping Addiction
Although some research suggests that individuals with substance abuse disorders are more likely to develop shopping addictions, the link is not particularly well established and it could be simply a case of those individuals be more susceptible to addiction generally. It is certainly the case that many people who go on “shopping binges” do so under the influence of drugs or, especially, alcohol; and the impact of shopping addiction, including the development of mood disorders and concerns over finances, can lead some people to turn to drink or drugs as a form of escapism.
Short-Term and Long-Term Impacts of Shopping Addiction
Treatment for Shopping Addiction
As incidents of shopping addiction have become more widespread, and understanding of the condition more sophisticated, a growing number of treatment facilities and organisations have been set up across the UK to treat those affected. Treatment primarily consists of psychotherapy-based programmes, though other approaches can also be taken.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most commonly deployed therapy model in the treatment of addiction, and most treatment plans will contain at least an element of CBT. CBT aims to shine a light on negative behaviour patterns and what drives them, and to develop mechanisms by which the patient can avoid such behaviour in future, as well as dealing with the impact of the past in a nondestructive way.
Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is a modified form of CBT originally developed to treat people with borderline personality disorder. It is now commonly used to treat substance abuse disorders, and increasingly to tackle behavioural addictions. It combines standard CBT techniques with such concepts as distress tolerance and mindfulness, brought in from certain Eastern traditions including Buddhism.
Twelve-step programmes are best known for their role in recovery from addictions to drink and drugs, in particular alcoholism: the original 12-step programme is the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous, set up in the 1930s. Some organisations now provide 12-step-based support groups for recovering behavioural addicts, especially those who have already gone through some kind of intensive treatment such as that provided at a rehab facility. Attendance at groups is typically free, with the only requirement being a commitment to avoid engaging in the addictive behaviour (i.e. unhealthy shopping).
Possible medications for treating shopping addiction
No medication exists for treating shopping addiction specifically (though a good deal of research is ongoing into a pharmaceutical approach to treating behavioural addictions). However, medicine is available to treat certain co-occurring disorders (such as depression and anxiety), and this treatment may have a positive impact upon the addiction itself as a secondary effect.
Prevention for Shopping Addiction
Apart from withdrawing into isolation and somehow having a third party make all your purchases, it is practically impossible to avoid shops altogether, making shopping addiction an especially challenging condition to recover from. However, certain steps can be taken in an attempt to prevent the development of an addiction.
Setting tight spending limits – and even restricting access to surplus cash, and in particular credit, especially store cards – and sticking to previously prepared lists of desired items are obvious measures which can have a positive result. Avoiding shops when not actually intending to buy anything is also important: try to reject the concept of shopping as a recreational activity as opposed to a practical necessity. If possible, ask someone close to you to carry out online purchases rather than having an account yourself. Setting up a savings account from which you can’t withdraw money easily, and transferring as much as possible into it regularly, can be a safe and profitable way of preventing excess spending.
How to manage a budding shopping addiction problem
As well as taking the preventative steps mentioned above, if you’re concerned that you are beginning to exhibit the signs of developing a shopping addiction, it is important to nip the situation in the bud as early as possible. Discuss your situation with someone close to you if you can – in particular, anyone who could possibly be affected by your financial situation – and reach out to your GP and/or an addiction specialist who may be able to assess your situation quite quickly, and either set your mind at ease or offer advice on next steps and potential treatment options if an addiction is identified.
Shopping Addiction Facts/Statistics
Around 85% of people suffering from a shopping addiction develop at least “worrying” levels of debt.
The most popular products bought by shopping addicts are (in descending order) clothing, shoes, media products, jewellery and cosmetics.
According to one survey, 37% of respondents have felt guilt or shame after shopping, and 20% have hidden purchases from their families.
Around 10% of people admit to shopping simply to improve their mood.
Over 24% of shoppers own items they have bought but never used.
The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale (BSAS) is a 28-point survey used to determine the severity of shopping addiction, named after the city of Bergen in Norway where it was devised.
Ready to Get Help?
Addiction is a terrible affliction which can ruin lives, and shopping addiction is no exception. It has long been recognised that no addict can truly be helped unless they can recognise their addiction and bring themselves to reach out for such help. However, if you have reached that stage there are plenty of treatment options available to you. There is no need to allow your addiction to destroy your life; acknowledging it, and asking for help, can get you back onto a happy and successful path.
Take control of your life – get started on the road to recovery.
You may feel that the prospect of tackling your addiction and embarking on the journey back to the life you want might be an overwhelming one – but the alternative can only be infinitely worse. Do not let addiction do you any more damage: take back control of your life and start your recovery today by contacting your GP and/or an addiction specialist and asking for the help you need.
Get help today
If you are suffering from a shopping addiction, it is vital not to waste any more time before addressing it. Contact your GP and/or professional addiction specialist today to discuss your situation and to examine the treatment options which may be appropriate for you.
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