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What Is Shopping Addiction?

Compulsive Shopping Basics

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Updated April 22, 2014

A picture of a woman who suffers from shopping addiction

Shopping Addiction -- The Thrill is Short-Lived

Image (c) Stella Levi

Omniomania, compulsive shopping, or what's more commonly referred to as shopping addiction, is perhaps the most socially reinforced of the behavioral addictions.

We are surrounded by advertising, telling us that buying will make us happy. We are encouraged by politicians to spend as a way of boosting the economy. And we all want to have what those around us have –- consumerism has become a measure of our social worth.

Although widespread consumerism has escalated in recent years, shopping addiction is not a new disorder. It was recognized as far back as the early nineteenth century, and was cited as a psychiatric disorder in the early twentieth century.

Almost everyone shops to some degree, but only about 6% of the U.S. population is thought to have a shopping addiction. Usually beginning in the late teens and early adulthood, shopping addiction often co-occurs with other disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, other impulse control disorders, and personality disorders.

Normal Shopping v. Shopping Addiction

So what makes the difference between normal shopping, occasional splurges, and shopping addiction? As with all addictions, shopping becomes the person’s main way of coping with stress, to the point where they continue to shop excessively even when it is clearly having a negative impact on other areas of their life. As with other addictions, finances and relationships are damaged, yet the shopping addict feels unable to stop or even control their spending.

The Controversy of Shopping Addiction

Like other behavioral addictions, shopping addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that excessive spending can constitute an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance which produces symptoms such as physical tolerance and withdrawal for an activity to be a true addiction.

There is also some disagreement among professionals about whether compulsive shopping should be considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), impulse control disorder (like pathological gambling), mood disorder (like depression), or addiction. It has been suggested that, along with kleptomania (compulsive stealing) and binge-eating disorder (BED), it be viewed as an impulsive-compulsive spectrum disorder.

How Is Shopping Addiction Like Other Addictions?

There are several characteristics that shopping addiction shares with other addictions. As with other addictions, shopping addicts become preoccupied with spending, and devote significant time and money to the activity. Actual spending is important to the process of shopping addiction; window shopping does not constitute an addiction, and the addictive pattern is actually driven by the process of spending money.

As with other addictions, shopping addiction is highly ritualized and follows a typically addictive pattern of thoughts about shopping, planning shopping trips, and the shopping act itself, often described as pleasurable, ecstatic even, and as providing relief from negative feelings. Finally, the shopper crashes, with feelings of disappointment, particularly with the him/herself.

Compulsive shoppers use shopping as a way of escaping negative feelings, such as depression, anxiety, boredom, self-critical thoughts, and anger. Unfortunately, the escape is short-lived. The purchases are often simply hoarded unused, and compulsive shoppers will then begin to plan the next spending spree. Most shop alone, although some shop with others who enjoy it. Generally, it will lead to embarrassment to shop with people who don’t share this type of enthusiasm for shopping.

What If I Have a Shopping Addiction?

Research indicates that around three-quarters of compulsive shoppers are willing to admit their shopping is problematic, particularly in areas of finances and relationships. Of course, this may reflect the willingness of those who participate in research to admit to having problems. Fortunately, although not yet well-researched, compulsive shopping does appear to respond well to a range of treatments, including medications, self help books, self help groups, financial counseling, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It should be noted, however, that although some medications show promise, results are mixed, so they should not be considered a sole or reliable treatment.

If you believe you may have a shopping addiction, discuss possible treatments with your doctor. You may also find it helpful to get financial counseling, particularly if you have run up debts by spending. It is recommended that you abstain from use of checkbooks and credit cards, as the easy access to funding tends to fuel the addiction.

Shopping only with friends or relatives who do not compulsively spend is also a good idea, as they can help you to curb your spending. Finding alternative ways of enjoying your leisure time is essential to breaking the cycle of using shopping as way of trying to feel better about yourself. Remember, you are a worthwhile person, no matter how much or how little you own.

Sources:

Black, D. “A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder.” World Psychiatry. 6:14-18. 2007.

Black, D. “Compulsive Buying Disorder: A Review of the Evidence.” CNS Spectr. 12(2):124-32. Feb 2007.

Christenson G, Faber R, de Zwaan M, Raymond N, Specker S, Ekern M, Mackenzie T, Crosby R, Crow S, Eckert E, et al. “Compulsive buying: descriptive characteristics and psychiatric comorbidity.” J Clin Psychiatry.55(1):5-11. Jan 1994.

McElroy S, Keck P Jr, Phillips K. “Kleptomania, compulsive buying, and binge-eating disorder.” J Clin Psychiatry. 56 Suppl 4:14-26. 1995.

Mueller A, de Zwaan M. “Treatment of compulsive buying.” Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr. 76:478-83. Aug 2008.

Tavares H, Lobo D, Fuentes D, Black D. “Compulsive Buying Disorder: A Review and a Case Vignette.” Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 30 Suppl 1:S16-23. May 2008.

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