Understanding Shopping Addiction
Shopping addiction is frequently used in jest, directed at a friend or loved one who has perhaps spent too much or seems to always buy the latest fashion or gadget. However, as the science and understanding of addiction advances, it’s increasingly recognized behaviors like shopping can be addictive and, in some cases, just as destructive as substance addictions.
The understanding of process, or behavioral, addictions is still in its infancy. While some, like gambling, are well documented and can be diagnosed according to agreed criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), others, like food, sex, and shopping are still the subject of debate. However, the ability of behavior to create addictive pathways in the brain is accepted, and shopping is one such behavior.
What is Shopping Addiction?
Without the formal diagnosis in DSM-5, there isn’t a definition of shopping addiction. However, many of the features of addiction to substances and other behaviors can be seen in those that may have shopping addiction.
The addiction itself can manifest in different ways. Shopaholics Anonymous suggest there are several types of addiction which exhibit in different purchasing behaviors. Compulsive shoppers will just purchase items in response to stress, but others will have specific buying patterns11.H. Zhao and W. Tian, The Development and Validation of the Online Shopping Addiction Scale – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5432625/.
Trophy shoppers might be looking for the ‘perfect’ item, others might be buying to create or support a specific self-image. Bargain hunters may be unable to resist the idea that they have made a saving, regardless of whether they need the item. While collectors will feel the need to complete their set, regardless of the difficulty, expense or need.
Like many parts of modern life, this addiction can be online and offline. While, for some, the addiction is satisfied with trips out, and that trip may form part of the addiction along with the purchase, for others it might be entirely online.
It is important to note that despite being frequently referred to as shopping addiction, the occasional splurge, sometimes buying something on a whim, or even infrequently using a purchase to mark a celebration or lift a low mood, is not addiction.
Addiction is compulsive behavior that the addict requires because of changes in their neural networks. While anyone might buy a treat to cheer themselves up, an addict requires regular purchases to operate normally because their brain has become reliant on the stimulus of shopping to generate neurotransmitters like endorphins.
Symptoms of Shopping Addiction
Like the definition of shopping addiction, because there are no agreed diagnostic criteria, there is no formal set of symptoms. However, an addict is likely to display many of the symptoms associated with other addictions.
The main changes will be on behavior and the addict’s mood. Like any addict, they will experience cravings, strong desires and compulsions to engage in their addictive behavior. This can affect their mood, leaving them feeling down or irritable when they are unable to shop.
They may also find that their shopping is stimulated by their mood. Frequently addictive behaviors will be caused by experiencing negative emotions. Addicts may, therefore, shop in response to feeling stress, anxiety, or depression.
Like other addictions, addicts may develop a tolerance. Because shopping has been associated with the production of dopamine, they might need to shop more, either for higher value items or more frequently, to have the same effect.
Effects of Shopping Addiction
Like any addiction, shopping addiction can have negative effects on the addict’s wider life. They might experience financial problems because they are unable to fund their shopping habit. They might also experience strained relationships with friends and loved ones, especially as they might be unable to understand their concerns. This is a particular problem because ‘shopping addiction’ is used light-heartedly and shopping is increasingly seen as a normal leisure activity in which the addict may believe they are indulging appropriately.
Despite this, the addict may feel some of the negative associations and experiences associated with addiction. Many will feel shame or guilt about their behavior, especially afterwards. This, along with negative judgements they may have experienced, might lead them to hide their shopping, pretending shopping trips are something else, hiding their purchases, or going online when no-one else is around. And it might even have resulted in attempts to limit or stop their shopping; like any addiction, shopping addicts may have experienced several failed attempts to control their behavior.
Other than the psychological and neurological effects, there are no direct physical effects to shopping addiction. It is possible, however, that in extreme cases an addict may suffer from self-neglect if they are prioritizing their addiction over self-care.
Controlling Spending Addiction
There are several things an addict, or an addict’s loved one, can do to manage their addiction. Like any addiction, restricting access to the addictive substance or behavior is the key.
This might include restricting access to cash and credit, such as cancelling credit cards or having credit or overdraft limits lowered. They may even allow a loved one to control access to money, only offering a limited amount for a fixed period to limit the ability for addictive shopping to take place.
It’s also possible to use technology to enforce limits. Software can be used to restrict access to shopping sites for example. Making it harder to get online, and while these can be circumvented, the inconvenience can, at least, give pause for thought and offer the opportunity for the addict to re-consider by creating a gap between impulse and behavior.
If the addict felt able, even using a simple shopping list can be effective, but only if they could stick to the list and resist temptations to add to the list or buy things that were not on it.
Perhaps the most important step, however, is for the addict to understand their feelings. Addictions often develop as a way to manage other issues, like stress or depression. Or become responses to those feelings after the addiction has developed. By paying attention to feelings, and behaviors, an addict can understand the chain of behavior and take steps to avoid the addictive behavior.
However, perhaps the best thing an addict can do is seek help. Unlike many addictions because shopping is a normal and everyday behavior, and one in which they will need to engage, it can be incredibly hard to control the addiction, and find a balance, alone.
Treatment for Compulsive Spending Disorder
Professional treatment is usually the best way to manage any addiction. This is especially the case for behavioral addictions like shopping. The aim of treatment is not to totally stop the behavior, but instead to allow the addict to understand their behavior, develop strategies to cope with and manage it, and then develop a healthy relationship with shopping.
Professional treatment also helps because it means it is possible to treat any co-occurring disorders. Addiction is often associated with poor mental health, like depression, and because of the effect on neurotransmitters these conditions can be affected by recovery from addiction. When getting professional treatment it’s easier to manage these co-occurring conditions, maximizing the chances of recovery from both.
Although some medication may be prescribed to help with co-occurring conditions, treatment for shopping addiction will focus on therapy. The most likely form of therapy will be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is an active therapy, and will involve the patient thinking about how they feel and how they behave, identifying triggers to their behaviors and the effects these have. From these, they can develop strategies to break the cycle and, instead, engage in more effective behaviors.
Shopping addicts may also benefit from, and receive, family therapy. This can be helpful because it helps others understand the issues, as well as any enabling behaviors they may have exhibited. It also equips family members to help and support the addict with their return to an addiction-free life, especially as shopping is likely to be a component of that life. Financial counseling may also form part of the recovery. In part this is because there are likely to be financial problems as a result of the addiction, but also because it helps addicts think about the consequences and how they can better manage their money to make it harder to relapse.
Shopping addiction, like many process addictions, is a difficult addiction to manage because it is, for most people, a common activity with no stigma. Indeed, shopping is frequently openly promoted as a positive in advertising and the media. But it is possible to recover from shopping addiction, especially with the right help, and return to a life with a healthy relationship with shops and shopping.
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- 11.H. Zhao and W. Tian, The Development and Validation of the Online Shopping Addiction Scale – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5432625/
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