Shopping addiction can be a serious and destructive behavioural health addiction. Although it has been documented in medical journals for more than 100 years, the American Psychiatric Association does not officially recognise shopping addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5). 1 Researchers and clinicians continue to debate the best way to classify compulsive and excessive shopping—whether as an addictive, obsessive-compulsive, impulse-control, or mood disorder. They also continue to debate the name of this disorder, so you may hear it called shopping addiction, compulsive buying disorder, shopaholism, compulsive shopping, compulsive consumption, impulsive buying, or compulsive spending. 1
Shopping addiction is characterised by an intense preoccupation with buying and shopping, frequent episodes of buying, and an uncontrollable urge to shop despite serious negative consequences. 2 If you have a shopping addiction, you may feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster. You may: 2
Researchers estimate that almost 6% of adults in the United States experience shopping addiction during their lifetime. 2 It appears shopping addiction primarily affects women, but the numbers could be slightly skewed because men are less likely to admit to a shopping addiction. Given this variable, surveys suggest that as many as 80–95% of people with a shopping addiction are women. 2
Societal norms and gender roles likely play a role in the demographics of behavioural health problems in general. Evidence shows that men gravitate toward gambling and sex addiction, while women are more likely to develop food and shopping addictions. 3
Age is also a factor. Most studies suggest that shopping addictions typically begin in the late teens or early twenties, around the time when people can open their own credit accounts. 2
How Does Shopping Addiction Develop?
In most cases, shopping can be viewed as a fairly positive activity. It is functional, entertaining, and good for the economy. Some behaviors become reinforced as a function of the sense of reward that they elicit in the brain, and shopping may be no exception. Any activity that stimulates our reward center carries some risk of addiction. The way in which Americans shop, and where they shop, has changed over the years—from small shops to huge malls, to megastores and big-box stores, to the internet—but the process remains the same. The act of shopping in any form involves stages that all activate the brain’s reward center, including the process of browsing and the final purchase. 3
The development of a shopping addiction is thought to be influenced by a combination of several factors. The most common risk factors for shopping addiction are age and gender, with young women facing the highest risk. Evidence suggests that compulsive shopping runs in families and that within those families there are very high rates of other mental health and substance addiction issues. 2 Studies suggest that people with an immediate family member suffering from depression are at the highest risk. 2
According to most research, the typical compulsive shopper is young, female, and of a lower educational background. 1 If you are a compulsive buyer, you are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol too. 4 You may also experience more obsessive-compulsive and impulse-control symptoms than other people, and you may have low self-esteem. 5
The most common risk factors for shopping addiction are age and gender, with young women facing the highest risk.
Some personalities are more prone to develop a shopping addiction than others. Research shows a connection between depression and anxiety disorders and compulsive shopping. 1 So, if you are typically anxious, depressed, and self-conscious, you may be using shopping as a way to deal with negative emotions. 1 If you are an extrovert, you may use shopping as a way to maintain social status and attractiveness—a new outfit for every occasion.
Depression is one of the most common comorbidities with compulsive buying disorder, but general anxiety is also common. However, it is difficult to say which starts first, the shopping disorder or the mood disorder. One theory is that people with depression and anxiety self-medicate with shopping and rely on shopping for the temporary relief of their symptoms. 4 Another theory is that shopping addiction alters the brain’s reward circuitry (in the same way as other addictions), which may increase the likelihood of developing depression. 4
If you think you may have a shopping addiction, you may recognise 4 common phases of compulsive buying: 2
Anticipation. You feel an urge to shop and you can’t stop thinking about it.
Preparation. You make decisions about when and where to go, what to wear, and which credit card to use. You may spend considerable time researching fashion trends or sales.
Shopping. You feel intense excitement during the actual shopping experience.
Spending. Your ritual is completed with the purchase. You may feel euphoria or relief, followed by a sense of let-down or disappointment with yourself.
Most compulsive buyers shop alone and keep any debt a secret.A shopping addiction is difficult to spot in another person, since it is largely a private experience. Most compulsive buyers shop alone and keep any debt a secret. Shopping addiction has little to do with individual wealth. Shopping and spending can be done in a variety of venues, from high-end boutiques to garage sales. Compulsive shoppers tend to buy clothing the most, followed by shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, and household items. 2
If you have a shopping addiction, you probably feel a lot of guilt and regret about your buying habits, and the stress of guilty feelings can lead to depression and anxiety. Additionally, there may be major conflicts or tension in your family because of your addiction since financial problems can strain marital relationships and put everyone under a lot of pressure. This state of constant tension can lead to serious depressive symptoms.
If you are suffering from both a shopping disorder and a depressive disorder, you may experience some of the following symptoms: 6
Persistent sad, empty, or anxious mood
Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
Feelings of hopelessness
Difficulty making decisions, concentrating, or remembering
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
Moving or talking more slowly
Feelings of restlessness
Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
Changes to appetite or weight
Thoughts of death or suicide
Aches or pains
People with a compulsive buying disorder often have trouble controlling their impulses. An essential characteristic of behavioral addictions is the inability to resist an impulse, urge, or temptation to do something that is harmful to yourself. 7 This feature is particularly prevalent in shopping addictions because the act of buying and spending money is often impulsive—people with shopping addiction purchase impulsively with little thought of the negative consequences.
A shopping addiction is very different from a love of shopping. People with an addiction continue to shop despite serious negative consequences. Many compulsive buyers face consequences like serious credit card debt, inability to pay bills, failed relationships, financial legal troubles, and criminal legal troubles.
In one study, 85% of compulsive buyers say they are worried about debt. Increasing credit card debt takes a major toll on personal relationships, and most compulsive shoppers say their relationships have been negatively affected. Research shows that nearly all compulsive buyers try to resist their urges, but are rarely successful. 2
Treatment Options Available
At present, there are no proven pharmacological treatments for compulsive buying disorder. Clinicians often prescribe anti-depressants such as citalopram, but there are no definitive studies proving that it works. 2 Since people with a shopping addiction often have co-occurring psychiatric disorders, part of their treatment is actually treating those other disorders, which may have a residual effect of reducing compulsive shopping behaviours. This may include treatment with anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety medication, mood stabilisers or opioid-antagonists. 8
Research shows that the best way to treat a shopping addiction is with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)—a form of talk therapy—in a group setting. You can work with a psychologist, therapist, or counsellor in a structured therapeutic environment to identify problematic thought patterns. You learn to question harmful thought patterns and understand how they affect your behaviour and emotions. You then develop strategies to change self-defeating patterns and learn to cope with stressful situations in a healthy way. 9
You can explore more intensive treatment in an inpatient or intensive outpatient setting, but most compulsive shoppers find that a commitment to ongoing outpatient CBT therapy is sufficient. You and your behavioural health counsellor can talk about your compulsivity and impulsivity, evaluate the current problems in your life (such as debt or marital discord), and identify solutions for those problems.
CBT group therapy is the only proven method of treating shopping addiction and compulsivity, but you may benefit from other group treatment options. Talking about your disorder with people who understand, because they have been through it themselves, has shown to be an effective addiction treatment, partly because you feel less alone in a support group where people get what you are going through. Peer-to-peer support groups like Debtors Anonymous use the 12-step program to stop spending money and going into debt. Debtors Anonymous meetings are free and open to anyone who is ready to stop shopping and are found in cities all over the country.