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Shopping Addiction: A Way to Buy Yourself Some Trouble

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By: Genevieve Cunningham

Shopping-Addiction-A-Way-to Buy-Yourself-Some-Trouble

What image comes to mind when you think about shopping? Is it shopping bags and crisp dollar bills? Is it your laptop open to the latest online specials? Or maybe it’s thoughts of the infamous Black Friday with big sales, long lines, and crazy fights?

Shopping feels like an American tradition. We like to consume, and shopping is both a necessity and an activity. But no matter what image comes to mind when you think of shopping, there’s probably at least one thing that never comes to mind: Addiction.

When we think of addiction, we certainly don’t hop straight to thoughts about shopping. We might think of drugs, alcohol, pain pills, or even gambling. But shopping? Unfortunately, shopping can be a big problem for some people. A problem that needs immediate attention and outside help. How do you know when shopping crosses the line between innocent fun and a major problem? Let’s take a look.

How prevalent is shopping addiction?

Shopping addiction, also known as compulsive buying disorder, is a type of behavioral addiction. Unlike an addiction to drugs or alcohol, there isn’t a substance that causes a physical dependence. Instead, the brain becomes accustomed to a certain behavior, and it seeks the rush of dopamine that comes when making a purchase. This temporary high is often followed by a crash, and thus, it seeks to perform the behavior—and get the high—all over again.

How common is this disorder? Research suggests that as many as 1 in 20 people in developed countries may suffer from compulsive buying disorder, though the exact number is difficult to measure. It’s not an addiction with a predictable path. It’s easily hidden, easily overlooked, and easily explained as a normal part of a consumer culture. But there’s no doubt that the disorder is real and problematic. And with the influx of online shopping, it's believed that the prevalence of the disorder will only continue to grow.

What are the risk factors?

Shopaholics, as many casually call this group, often have a stereotype. Media, television, and movies would have us believe that people addicted to shopping are always adult women with nice clothes, a big purse, and lots of money. And while women are significantly more prone to this particular addiction, the stereotype doesn’t always add up. There are numerous risk factors for compulsive buying.

  • Women - It’s true that approximately 80 percent of those diagnosed with shopping addiction are women. Women are the largest consumer group for both necessity and leisure. They also use shopping as a bonding experience, placing them at a higher risk of addiction.
  • Mood disorders - It’s thought that those already suffering from mood disorders, mental health issues, or personality disorders are at higher risk of developing compulsive shopping disorder.
  • Extraverted personalities - In research, shopping addicts identified as extroverts at a much higher rate than introverts. Researchers aren’t clear as to this connection, but the evidence was overwhelmingly clear.
  • Societal pressure - For some people, keeping up with the Joneses is important. Those living in an area above their current means may feel the pressure to keep up with those around them, which can turn into a constant need to buy bigger and better.

Shopping addiction is more difficult to study and understand than some of the more common addictions. Having one or more of these risk factors does not guarantee a compulsive buying problem. But if you suspect that compulsive buying is a problem for you and fall into one or more of these categories, it might be worth a closer look.

What are the signs of a shopaholic?

Because shopping is such a common part of life—and even something that’s necessary—it can be hard to determine when it has crossed from a fun activity to a more serious problem. It’s easy to dismiss compulsive buying as harmless. But if you’re paying attention, there may be signs.

  • Financial problems - Financial strain is common for people who suffer from compulsive shopping. They may even find themselves going into debt, most commonly through the use of credit cards. If you find yourself stretching your finances to buy things you probably don’t need, it might be a problem.
  • Shopping as an emotional response - When something goes wrong in your life, do you turn to shopping to ease the emotional discomfort? Unfortunately, it’s called retail therapy for a reason. If shopping is meeting an emotional need, there may be a shopping problem to address.
  • Family problems - Oftentimes, family members notice a problem before the person suffering from the condition. Arguments and disagreements may break out as a result, resulting in family tension.
  • Buying things that are never used - If you often purchase items that never get used or simply go to waste, you may have a problem. This is especially true if you find that this is happening at almost every shopping spree.

Even if you don’t specifically fall into one of these categories, shopping addiction may still be a problem in your life. We see a lot of jokes and memes on the internet about hiding Amazon packages, but is this a healthy portrayal of shopping? Or are we actually encouraging addiction? Online shopping has completely transformed our world, and it has created a very convenient way to partake in compulsive buying.

Or perhaps you’re more of a seasonal buyer. Is it entirely necessary to participate in Black Friday? Or Cyber Monday? Do we need to buy a million gifts? At this point, most of us would argue in favor of these unofficial consumer holidays. What about Christmas in July when the Home Shopping Network and QVC have big sales? Do you feel the need to stock up on items? Many people say yes. But being unable to pass on these kinds of days and deals may actually indicate a bigger problem.

How does a shopping addiction affect our health and lives?

On the surface, a shopping addiction probably looks like a minor issue. After all, it’s not nearly as severe or life-threatening as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. But it can still cause harm to our overall health and well-being.

One of the more serious ways in which it inflicts harm is through stress. We often use shopping to alleviate or ignore certain emotions, but this can lead to even more stressful situations later on. This is especially true because of the financial impact of a shopping addiction. The more stress we feel, the more likely we are to experience symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, and more.

Another common health problem associated with obsessive shopping is a decline in mental health. Not only does it compound financial issues, but it can also lead to relationship problems, hoarding and disorganization, and even mood swings. Since this is a condition that is more prevalent in those with mental health issues, it can make a troublesome situation worse until outside assistance is needed to truly combat the problem.

Of course, it’s also important to consider the impact of a shopping addiction on our lives, not just our health. When shopping causes unnecessary debt, excessive stress, and strained relationships, it’s a bigger problem than just owning too much stuff. It affects our world—families, jobs, and quality of life. Living a healthy and happy life requires us to look at these addictions, admit problem areas, and seek help as soon as possible.

How to get help for your addiction

Shopping addiction can be hard to break. It’s next to impossible to completely avoid shopping. After all, we all need things like groceries and home supplies. So we have to instead learn how to continue to shop but with restraint and without obsession.

If you need help, your first step should be to reach out. Tell a loved one that you think you may have a problem. From there, it may be a good idea to talk with a therapist or mental health professional of some sort. Treatment for shopping addiction will most likely come in the form of behavioral therapy. The therapist can help you understand and avoid your triggers, understand the reason why you feel the need to compulsively shop, and help you find coping mechanisms that are more productive than your current addiction.

Addiction of any kind can be detrimental to your well-being. Fortunately, our modern world is full of opportunities to get help, get better, and improve your health and life. Don’t fall into the over-consumerism trap. Drop the bags, drop the credit cards, and drop the addiction before you buy yourself some real trouble.

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