When Does Shopping Become an Addiction?

miniature shopping bags and cart on computer

All of us have wasted money on items and services we don’t need, purchases we eventually realized were not worth the time or investment. Think about all the expired food you have had to throw out, tickets to movies that looked terrible, clothes you don’t wear (but the sale made them too tempting to pass up).

Sometimes the experience of shopping provides more pleasure than what we end up buying. Children feel joy simply walking through a Toys R’ Us. Going to Macy’s during the holidays is a tradition for many families. Later they realize they most likely spent way too much, but it’s OK. The New Year arrives, and expenses return to normal until the next holiday.

But what about people who treat every day like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or Christmas? This kind of excessive shopping isn’t only financially irresponsible. The behavior can be a mental health issue.

The Evolution of Attitudes Regarding Shopping Addiction

For decades people regarded compulsive buying only as a bad habit or personality flaw. The popular book-turned-movie, Confessions of a Shopaholic, portrayed the problem as millennial ennui, not a mental health condition. Other than the occasional daytime talk show special about a daughter who had mired her family in ridiculous debts, shopping addiction was more of a joke than a concern.

Today there are still many mental health professionals who do not think shopping — unlike alcohol and drugs — is a legitimate addiction. The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize shopping addiction, yet the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does include gambling disorder and considered adding gaming addiction disorder.

Some people have referred to compulsive shopping as “retail therapy,” implying the act can have positive effects on mental health. The term exists primarily to minimize the seriousness of the issue. Shopping can provide temporary relief from stress and other negative emotions, but it is not a healthy coping strategy.

Like “hysteria,” “retail therapy” has a sexist connotation. Men have used the phrase and similar language to imply women are prone to destructive behavior and cannot effectively cope with negative emotions. This attitude has contributed to delegitimizing shopping addiction.

Fortunately an increasing number of clinical associations and practitioners are treating shopping addiction as a mental illness. Several organizations, including Frontiers in Psychology, have researched compulsive buying behavior and compared it with other behavioral addictions. The Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association refers to shopping addiction as “compulsive buying disorder” and has amassed a wealth of research on the topic.

Therapist Laura MacLeod, among other mental health professionals, has been using her practice to legitimize shopping addiction and provide a supportive community for people who live with compulsive buying disorder. Sufferers hesitate to call the illness an addiction, MacLeod said, yet the triggers, symptoms and effects are similar to substance dependency.

Signs and Symptoms of Shopping Addiction/Compulsive Buying Disorder

Here are some common symptoms therapists have used to diagnosis compulsive buying disorder:

  • An inability to consistently abstain from shopping when buying items beyond a need or that don’t serve a purpose
  • An impairment in controlling the shopping despite reasonable efforts to stop
  • Shopping has caused significant impairment in functioning, including the ability to work, pay bills and living costs, maintain relationships, etc.
  • Consistent feelings of guilt or remorse about purchases
  • Feeling out of control while shopping
  • Relationship conflicts around excessive spending
  • Consistently using shopping as a method of modifying self-image and coping with negative emotions
  • A “craving” to shop as a means for reward or pleasure on a consistent basis
  • A dysfunctional emotional response that often presents as anxiety, sadness, or even anger if a person is not able to engage in shopping
  • Tension or anxiety before making a purchase, and a sense of relief after the purchase

Like a substance, shopping can become a horrible vice that forces people to structure their lives around maladaptive behavior.

“Thoughts, perspectives, choices and behavior become one singular focus: to engage in the behavior of shopping,” said therapist Shemiah Derrick, who has treated clients for shopping addiction.

Compulsive buying behavior, much like drug abuse, has several stages, explained therapist Whitney Hawkins:

Stage 1: Anticipation

The individual experiences obsessive thoughts and preoccupations. There might be a particular item or location they are fixated on.

Stage 2: Preparation

The individual plans for how they will make the purchase(s).

Stage 3: Shopping

This stage is the most exciting. The pleasure lies in the act of shopping, often more so than with the purchased items.

Stage 4: Spending

The individual completes the transactions and has a brief feeling of relief. Disappointment and guilt follow.

If this clinical criteria describes what you have experienced, consider connecting with a professional to receive a formal diagnosis. Now that people are taking shopping addiction more seriously, there are many treatment providers and support groups. There is not yet a specific treatment model for compulsive buying disorder, but Hawkins recommended working with an addiction therapist. Shopping addiction affects millions of people, so you are far from alone.

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