Addiction specialist explains how impulse purchasing can become an unhealthy habit.
Whether it’s a fancy new face cream, a fresh outfit, or that kitchen appliance you've been thinking about for a while, treating yourself to something nice feels good.
The positive feelings we experience during a shopping session has led to the popularisation of the term ‘retail therapy’, where people make purchases based on their emotional impulses rather than rational thinking. But when does the little rush of pleasure at the point of purchase turn into a more serious compulsion?
In the age of online shopping, addiction experts say there’s a need for a greater understanding and recognition of just how damaging a condition like shopping addiction can be, and the trickle-down impact it can have on relationships, work, finances and emotions.
Also known as ‘oniomania’, compulsive buying is a difficult addiction to spot, because we live in a society that encourages us to consume and chase after the next must-have purchase.
“People with oniomania feel completely ruled by the compulsion to ‘shop and spend’ – either for themselves, or by excessive gifting to others,” says Pamela Roberts, addiction program manager at the Priory Hospital in Woking, UK. “The time and emotional stress involved in online searching, social media scrolling, visiting shops, juggling credit card bills, hiding purchases from family and returning goods can cause severe disruption to everyday life.
“This serious form of addiction can lead to debt, dysfunctional family life, neglected or over-indulged children.”
Why do people become addicted to shopping?
Shopping has a tangible effect on the brain. Research shows that during the buying experience, the chemical ‘dopamine’ surges as you anticipate a new purchase. For some people, the pleasurable feeling rapidly declines, sometimes as soon as they’ve clicked to make an online purchase. This leads shopping addicts to repeat the process to experience the same ‘high’.
The increase of dopamine in the brain can trigger powerful feelings of reward and motivation. While most of us can usually keep this balanced by self-control and practical financial considerations, if the process gets out of balance and people become addicted to the pleasure of spending, it can turn into a full-blown shopping addiction.
Ms Roberts says: “Any addiction is a way of coping with emotions – so shopping for some people is a way to avoid confronting negative or uncomfortable feelings such as sadness, boredom, stress and anxiety. If you’re overloaded with work, for example, you feel you deserve a treat.
“If you become reliant on that ‘hit’, it can develop into a negative habit, whereby your response to stress is hardwired to buy something. In the online age, with many people having smartphone access, it can be an irresistible distraction from the working day and from other family or relationship problems.”
How do you know if you, or a friend, has a problem?
Do you buy an excessive number of things that you really don’t need – and then don’t use? Are you hoarding goods at home, or going to extreme lengths to conceal items and your credit card bill?
Even if you don’t class yourself as a ‘shopaholic’, it’s healthy for all of us to review our shopping behaviour, says Ms Roberts. She suggests checking how much time you spend scrolling through shopping or bidding sites. “It could be a problem if you feel it’s a disproportionate amount of time or if it is so consuming that it is constantly distracting you from other priorities.”
Many compulsive shoppers also buy in quantity, admitting to buying a product “because it was a bargain”.
“If you have removed shopping apps only to download them again, you may have a problem that you need to seek help for,” Ms Roberts says. “Consistently overspending, taking out multiple store cards, juggling a raft of credit cards, running up significant debts in order to ‘fund’ your shopping – these are all real concerns.”
The road to recovery
The most important step is recognising and accepting that you have a problem, before seeking help for a suspected addiction.
Treatment for shopping addiction usually involves a combination of psychology, therapy and sometimes medication, and patients can identify any deeper psychological problems that may be influencing their behaviour. For instance, compulsive buying can be linked to psychiatric conditions such as OCD, depression and bipolar disorder.
“There is withdrawal with shopping addiction as well, which often surprises people,” Ms Roberts says. “Just like dependence on a substance, there can be a period of physical shakes, and emotions may be erratic when not shopping or trying to cut down.”
Without the behaviour, Ms Roberts says that self-esteem issues and uncertainties may come to the fore, too. “Fears and paranoia that are usually masked by addictive behaviour can emerge, and with withdrawals come cravings and the mistaken belief that only the shopping will relieve the discomfort.”
Ms Roberts, who has treated many people for shopping addiction, says that recovery requires patients to become familiar with triggers and gradually develop a resilience to emotions that at first seem incredibly raw.
She explains: “Instead of hiding true emotions behind shopping, there’s a gradual process of building a tolerance of, and responding emotionally to, life experiences, which ultimately brings freedom.
“Learning positive coping techniques and alternative methods for receiving the same pleasurable effects that shopping gives, is an important part of the healing process.”
Have you ever known someone who cannot control their spending habits?
– With PA
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