BEYOND RETAIL: DELVING INTO THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SHOPPING ADDICTION
Shopping is a common and enjoyable activity for many people. It can be a way of expressing oneself, finding pleasure, or fulfilling needs. However, for some people, shopping becomes an uncontrollable and harmful behavior that causes distress, financial problems, and interpersonal conflicts. This is known as shopping addiction, compulsive shopping, or compulsive buying disorder.
Shopping addiction was first described over 100 years ago and is not a rare phenomenon. According to some estimates, between 3% and 16% of the population may suffer from shopping addiction, with women being more affected than men. It also affects university students and people from higher-income countries more than lower-income countries.
Frequent compulsive buying can have serious negative impacts on one’s personal, social, and financial well-being. If you or someone you know has these signs and symptoms, you may have a shopping addiction and may benefit from seeking professional help. Shopping addiction is a treatable impulse control disorder that can be overcome with the right support and guidance.
In this blog, we will address the symptoms, causes, and triggers of shopping addiction and give practical advice on how to overcome shopping addiction with known treatment options and a 12-step action plan.
Warning Signs of Shopping Addiction
A behavioral addiction, shopping addiction is characterized by an overwhelming and compulsive need to purchase items, no matter what the consequences. People with shopping addiction often buy things they do not need, cannot afford, or do not use. They may shop online or in stores, alone or with others, impulsively or premeditatedly.
Some of the signs and symptoms of shopping addiction are:
- Having an excessive and irresistible urge to buy things, regardless of the consequences
- Feeling a rush of excitement, satisfaction, or relief while shopping but also experiencing guilt, shame, or regret afterward
- Lying about or hiding one’s purchases, spending, or debts
- Neglecting other aspects of one’s life, such as work, school, family, or health, because of shopping
- Having financial problems or an inability to pay off debts
- Trying to stop or reduce shopping but failing repeatedly
- Shopping when feeling stressed, sad, bored, or lonely
- Buying things that are not needed, cannot be afforded, or are not used
- Having conflicts or arguments with others over one’s shopping habits
Compulsive shopping can lead to debt, bankruptcy, legal issues, relationship breakdowns, isolation, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It can also increase the risk of developing or worsening other mental health conditions, such as mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, or personality disorders.
Four Stages of Compulsive Buying
Some of the most important signs of shopping addiction can be observed during compulsive buying, which has been broken down into four stages:
- Anticipation: The urge to shop.
- Preparation: Deciding where to go, what to wear, how to spend, and what to buy.
- Shopping: The shopper feels relief, great excitement, or extreme pleasure while shopping.
- Spending: Frustration or disappointment after buying an item due to the item often having little to no use or value and after the rush subsides. This may lead to anticipation and more purchases.
These steps highlight how shopping for the compulsive buyer is very different from the average person.
If you or someone you know displays these signs or is spending too much on one thing or on things they do not need, then it is time to seek professional help.
What Causes Shopping Addiction?
There is no single cause of shopping addiction. Most likely, a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social elements leads to it. Some of the possible causes and triggers of shopping addiction are discussed below.
Some people may have a genetic predisposition to developing addictive behaviors, such as shopping addiction. They may have inherited certain genes that affect their brain chemistry, reward system, impulse control, or stress response. Genetics also increases the risk for comorbid conditions known to promote the likelihood of shopping addiction or develop as a result of it, such as depression, substance abuse disorders, anxiety disorders , and ADHD.
Dopamine and the Brain’s Reward System
Shopping addiction may involve changes in the brain’s reward system, which is responsible for processing pleasure, motivation, and learning. When people with shopping addiction shop, they may experience a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of euphoria and reinforcement. Studies have shown that, like other addictive behaviors, this urge can bypass brain areas associated with reasoning and thinking ability. The longer it continues, the less rational the behavior may become and the worse the addiction may get, as it may require more effort to reach the same euphoric plateau.
Over time, this may lead to tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal, making it harder to stop shopping and feel satisfied with other sources of pleasure. This is a similar feature to that seen in other behavioral addictions, such as gambling, internet gaming, social media addiction, and food addiction.
Shopping addiction is often influenced by one’s personality, thoughts, feelings, stress levels, and coping skills. Personality traits that might increase the risk for shopping addiction include impulsivity, sensation-seeking, perfectionism, extroversion, neuroticism, a lack of personal resilience, or low self-esteem. Excessive shopping might begin as a way to assert independence or control while stressed or under pressure. It can also be a means of self-validation, a source of excitement, and a way to escape or soothe negative emotions or one’s life problems.
Shopping addiction is a socially acceptable behavior, which might make it more justifiable to the shopping addict until they land in debt. For some, the addiction can cause them to have unrealistic expectations or fantasies about the benefits of shopping. In this sense, it shares a great degree of similarity and overlaps with internet addiction, food addiction, and eventually, gambling addiction.
Shopping addiction may be influenced by one’s social environment, such as family, friends, culture, or media. People with shopping addiction may have learned to associate shopping with positive outcomes, such as love, approval, or happiness, from their parents or peers.
Many other social factors have been associated with shopping addiction, such as:
- Loneliness or social isolation
- Trauma, abuse, or childhood neglect
- Social pressure or societal norms pertaining to consumerism and materialism
- Excessive exposure to advertising or time spent on online shopping platforms
- Easy access to credit cards and credit facilities
These factors also facilitate reinforcing the psychology of shopping addiction by increasing stress, anxiety, and the risk for comorbid mental health disorders, such as depression and substance abuse.
How to Overcome Shopping Addiction
Shopping addiction is a treatable condition that can be overcome with professional help and personal commitment. Some of the steps that can help someone with a shopping addiction are:
Seek Professional Help
The first and most important step is to seek professional help from a qualified mental health provider, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor, who can assess, diagnose, and treat shopping addiction. This person can be trusted with the ins and outs of the addiction and guide the compulsive shopper at every step of the way throughout your recovery.
Professional help can offer evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which has shown some of the best success with compulsive shopping disorder. These can help address the underlying causes and consequences of shopping addiction and teach new skills and strategies to change one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to shopping. A professional can also help the shopping addict find a different purpose or meaning in life that can help shift their emphasis away from consumerism.
Professional help can also provide medication, if needed, to treat any co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD, that may contribute to or result from shopping addiction.
Identify and Avoid Triggers
One of the first steps to take after seeking professional help is to gain an understanding of the causes of the addiction. A therapist is able to help the addict identify triggers and institute exercises that help minimize them effectively. Triggers usually boil down to certain emotions (often stress or boredom), people, places, and situations. Limit exposure to advertising and try to account for all funds spent.
Constructive coping mechanisms, having a higher purpose or value in life, and finding healthier hobbies are great ways to avoid triggers and cope better with them. One study found that a lack of imagination might increase the risk and need for shopping addiction, suggesting that a creative hobby, such as art or crafts, might help mitigate triggers for shopping addiction and prove to be more rewarding.
Set Realistic and Specific Goals
It is useful to set realistic and specific goals that can help one throughout recovery. Budgeting properly, limiting shopping to certain times and days of the week or month, and placing money into constructive endeavors such as savings, hobbies, or paying off debts can all really help. One can also set a goal to reward oneself with non-material rewards, such as a movie, a massage, or a hobby, in order to replace the reward one might receive from shopping or for meeting one’s shopping goals.
Seek Support from Others
For many shopaholics, loneliness is a very common reason to shop, and regular (meaningful) social contact alone might be enough to overcome shopping addiction. It is important to separate socializing from shopping activities unless shopping is kept to a minimum. Inform your friends, family, and loved ones about your problem and the steps you are taking to overcome it.
It may be helpful to approach your relationships with more gratitude and to try to lessen reactivity, especially if one feels sensitive about their addiction. This does more than just improve the support you receive since it begins to change the way your brain responds to the addiction by lowering stress and enhancing rewards for positive activities. Practicing agreeableness and conscientiousness may help a compulsive shopper to change their behavior as well.
Join A Support Group
To further assist, consider joining a support group, such as Debtors Anonymous, Shopaholics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery, that can offer peer support, guidance, and accountability to people with shopping addiction. This is achieved through providing a safe and supportive space to share one’s experiences, challenges, and successes with shopping addiction and to learn from others who have similar struggles and goals. Support groups can also offer practical tools, such as budgeting, debt management, or shopping plans, that can help one gain more control over their finances and shopping habits.
12-Step Program for Spending Addiction
These 12 steps are based on recovery programs that have been helpful for treating other types of addiction, including substance abuse disorders. They can help someone overcome a shopping addiction and may be beneficial to follow with the guidance of a therapist and support groups.
- Admit that you have a problem with shopping addiction and that it has caused you trouble in your life.
- Believe that you can overcome the addiction with the help of a higher purpose or value that you choose.
- Make a decision to align your actions with your higher purpose or value and to follow a recovery plan.
- Make an honest and thorough self-assessment, and include your shopping habits and their effects on you and others.
- Share your assessment with someone you trust, such as a therapist, a sponsor, or a friend.
- Be willing to change yourself and the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that lead you to shop compulsively.
- Ask for help and guidance from your trusted person or source to change your shortcomings.
- Make a list of all the people you have harmed because of your shopping addiction, and be ready to make amends to them.
- Apologize and make restitution to the people you have harmed unless doing so would cause more harm to them or others.
- Keep track of your progress and admit your mistakes when you make them.
- Keep focused on your higher purpose or value through reflection and meditation. Use this to build faith in your ability to recover.
- Try to help other shopping addicts who want to recover after you have healed, and apply the same principles to all your affairs.
How to Help Someone with a Shopping Addiction
If you have a loved one who has a shopping addiction, you may feel worried, frustrated, or helpless about their situation. However, there are some ways that you can support them and help them recover, such as:
Educate yourself. The first step is to educate yourself about shopping addiction, its causes, symptoms, and treatments so that you can understand what your loved one is going through and what they need to overcome it. Books, articles, websites, professionals, and support groups are good places to learn more.
Express your concern with compassion. The next step is to express your concern and compassion for your loved one without judging, criticizing, or blaming them for their shopping addiction. You can do this by using “I” statements that place emphasis on how you feel about them instead of what they are doing wrong, such as “I care about you, and I am worried about your shopping habits.” You can also use this to acknowledge their feelings and validate their positive qualities, such as “I know you are feeling stressed and lonely, and I am here for you. I want you to be happy, and I think you can do better.” Keep in mind that addiction is almost never rational on the surface and that it is usually rationalized unconsciously by unmet needs, such as depression or loneliness.
Encourage professional help. Encouraging your loved one to get professional therapy for their shopping addiction is the most crucial step, as this is the best way to ensure their recovery and well-being. You can do this by offering to help them find a qualified mental health provider or by accompanying them to their first appointment. You can also emphasize the benefits of professional help, such as improving their mood, relationships, and finances and reducing their stress, guilt, and shame. Furthermore, you may reassure them that asking for assistance is a show of courage and strength rather than weakness or failure.
Limit Credit Access. If you are financially responsible for the shopping addict’s spending habits, it might be worthwhile to limit their access to credit cards or other finances until they can get professional help. Try to go about doing this in the kindest way possible. It is advisable not to limit their freedom completely as this may be part of what fuels the addiction.
Support recovery efforts. The final step is to support your loved one’s recovery efforts by being involved, supportive, and consistent. You can do this by following their treatment plan with them, attending therapy or support group sessions with them, or helping them focus on their daily activities. If you have an honest relationship with them, you can offer your insights to help them identify and avoid their triggers, set and monitor their goals, and celebrate their achievements. Emotional support is very important. Listen, empathize, and encourage them when they are feeling tempted, discouraged, or relapsed. You can also help them find healthy and enjoyable alternatives to shopping, such as hobbies, sports, or volunteering.
Regardless of age, gender, or background, anyone can be affected by a shopping addiction, a serious and complex disorder. It can have devastating effects on one’s physical, mental, and social health and can be hard to overcome without professional help and personal commitment. However, with the right help and support, anyone can overcome shopping addiction and regain control over their lives.
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