“The goal of every behavior is comfort and inner peace…To heal an addiction, you first need to recognize the destructive patterns of conditioned behavior that are dominating your life…The best way to escape is to find a new perspective outside and above the entrapment you unknowingly created.” -Dr. Deepak Chopra, M.D.
For most of us, shopping is a pleasurable activity that results in something new to wear, a birthday gift for a close friend, or perhaps a new piece of furniture for the house. A trip to the mall can be a great way to celebrate a new job or spend an afternoon with friends. But for some, the shopping experience can be an insidious compulsion that a person is unable to control. In these cases, shopping can actually be a manifestation of addiction.
Defined as a Compulsive Shopping Disorder or Shopaholic Syndrome, shopping addiction can wreak havoc on a person’s life, finances and family. According to Victoria, BC based psychologist, Elizabeth Hartney, PhD, about 6% of the American population is thought to have a shopping addiction. That’s close to 20 million people in the US who are unable to control their impulse to shop, which extrapolates to be about three million people in Canada.
Compulsive shopping and spending is described as a pattern of chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes difficult to stop and ultimately results in harmful consequences. Also referred to as an impulse control disorder, compulsive shopping has similar characteristics to other addictive disorders without involving the use of an intoxicating substance. “For instance, while alcoholics will hide their bottles, shopaholics will hide their purchases,” explains Ruth Engs, EdD, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University.
For compulsive shoppers, this behaviour is used as a way of escaping negative feelings, such as depression, anxiety, boredom, self-critical thoughts, and anger. “Individuals will get some kind of high from an addictive behavior like shopping,” Eng continues. “The endorphins and dopamine, which are naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain, get switched on causing the person to feel good, and if it feels good they are more likely to do it [again]”.
Unfortunately, the escape that shopping provides from these uncomfortable emotions is short-lived. For many of those suffering from the compulsion to shop, purchases are often hoarded and remain unused, and the cycle of behaviour is repeated as the compulsive shoppers then begin to plan the next spending spree. Many find themselves facing mounting debt, collections and other serious financial repercussions, leading to increased stress and feelings that can make the problem overwhelming.
According to Dr. Hartney, compulsive shopping does appear to respond well to a range of treatments, including;
- self-help books
- self-help groups
- financial counseling
- cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
It should be noted, however, that although some medications show promise, results are mixed. As medications do not address the stresses or emotions that are the root cause of compulsive behaviour, they should not be considered as a sole, 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.
As with any detrimental behaviour that is used to mask feelings or temporarily fulfill an unmet need or desire, it is important to also address the underlying issues that drive one to do so. Another essential step to overcoming addictions such as compulsive shopping is to find positive, healthy activities to replace the negative behavior and assist you in managing the stresses and emotions that trigger that behaviour.
Helpful tools to manage Compulsive Shopping:
• Reducing credit card limits and/or abstaining from credit card usage
• Using website blocker apps and add-ons on your web browser to prevent visits to shopping sites
• Exercise and physical activities such as biking, or yoga provide an outlet that engages the body.
• Meditation can bring you to a state of peace, reducing stress and increasing overall well being.
• Seeking counseling or therapy to assist you in healing underlying wounds.