Is Compulsive Shopping Really an Addiction?

A woman shopping in a store

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In This Article

What Is Compulsive Shopping?

Compulsive shopping is characterized by an obsession that leads to shopping and buying, which then results in negative consequences. It is marked by an excessive preoccupation with shopping as well as a lack of impulse control. This cycle can lead to a number of adverse consequences, including financial problems and relationship conflicts.

Rarely is compulsive shopping taken as seriously as addiction to substances like alcohol and drugs or other behaviors, such as compulsive gambling. This may be because compulsive shopping is not yet considered an official diagnosis. While compulsive shopping can lead to a number of problems, it is not recognized as a distinct behavioral addiction in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5).

Also Known As:

Shopping addiction is known by a number of different terms, including:

  • Compulsive shopping
  • Compulsive spending
  • Compulsive buying
  • Oniomania

Compulsive Shopping Is Often Trivialized

Shopping addiction is often trivialized in the media. It is portrayed as the behavior of superficial fashion victims—invariably female—and typified by wealthy celebrities with little more to do with their time than purchase shoes. In this context, compulsive shopping in itself doesn't appear to be a problem.

The movie "Confessions of a Shopaholic" in some ways reinforced this view, although it also contained some observations that are relevant to those experiencing problems of compulsive shopping.

There is a growing body of research into compulsive shopping, but many of these studies are published in journals on marketing and consumer research. In order to gain a better understanding of the clinical features and potential treatments for compulsive shopping, there needs to be further research focused on the causes, prevention, and treatment of the condition from a medical perspective.

Symptoms

While many people enjoy shopping and some may find themselves spending more than they intended from time to time, these behaviors alone don't make a compulsive shopper. Rather, symptoms of compulsive shopping will include:

  • Being preoccupied with shopping
  • Buying things that are unneeded
  • Difficulty resisting the impulse to buy something
  • Feelings of euphoria after shopping or buying things
  • Financial problems caused by excessive shopping
  • Guilt or remorse after a shopping spree
  • Impulsive purchases that often involve spending much more than usual
  • Shame, embarrassment, and efforts to hide shopping behavior
  • Shopping in response to emotional problems such as loneliness or sadness
  • Spending a great deal of time shopping and buying

Compulsive shopping can also lead to other problems, including marital conflict, work issues, and academic troubles.

Research suggests that between 80% and 95% of people who engage in compulsive shopping are women. The items that people purchase are not necessarily expensive, but are purchased in large quantities and are usually never used.

While exact prevalence rates are not known, it is estimated that about 5% of U.S. adults have a shopping addiction.

Online Shopping

Online shopping adds another element to compulsive shopping. Research has found that shopping online is particularly attractive to people who are "addicted" to shopping. This is because online shopping appeals to several motivations that are particularly strong in compulsive shoppers, including:

  • The ability buy without being seen
  • The ability to avoid social interactions while shopping
  • The ability to experience pleasure while shopping
  • The need to seek out variety in and information about products

As secrecy in carrying out the activity and intense pleasure while engaging in it are common across all addictive behaviors, this research supports the notion that compulsive shopping is, indeed, an addiction.

Online shopping and other computer-based activities that have an addictive component, including online gambling, online porn, and video game playing, are not included in the DSM as stand-alone addictive disorders just yet.

While these "cyber-addictions" have yet to gain official recognition, that is largely a reflection of the lack of a strong record of research on which to base the required detail for developing the official criteria for mental health conditions. It does not indicate that cyber-addictions are not prevalent, problematic, or that they are not taken seriously by the psychiatric community.

There is also a growing awareness of the need to help people who experience financial hardship as a result of compulsive shopping. Compulsive shopping can result in significant debt, reduced quality of life, difficulties managing money, and other issues that often require professional help.

Causes

While the exact causes of compulsive shopping are not known, it is believed that the same factors that contribute to other addictions may also play a role in causing behavioral addictions like compulsive shopping. Genetic, biological, environmental, and personality factors may all play a role.

The Brain's Reward System

Shopping and buying may activate the brain's reward systems, contributing to an ongoing need to continue stimulating those pleasure pathways. Things that people find pleasurable, whether it's shopping, eating, or sex, activate the brain's reward center to trigger the release of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes feelings of pleasure. Over time, it may take more and more stimulation to trigger the release of the "feel good" chemicals, which can lead to a cycle of compulsive behavior.

Higher Risk of Other Behavioral Addictions

Some research also suggests that compulsive shoppers may have a higher risk of conditions including gambling disorder as well as other behavioral addictions such as sex, internet, and gaming addiction.

Research has also shown that people who engage in compulsive shopping share personality traits similar to people with other behavioral addictions, including:

  • Harm avoidance
  • Novelty seeking
  • Persistence
  • Reward dependence

The authors of one study characterized compulsive shoppers as being "curious, easily bored, impulsive and active seekers of new stimuli and reward, but at the same time showing pessimism and worry in anticipation of upcoming challenges."

Studies suggest that people with symptoms of compulsive shopping also often experience symptoms of negative emotions, including depression and anxiety.

Shopping and buying are sometimes a way to temporarily relieve those feelings of discomfort. While they can offer a brief boost of positive emotion, such behaviors are often then followed by shame, guilt, and regret.  

Similar Conditions

Compulsive shopping has been recognized for the past 100 years. While "shopping addiction" is not an official diagnosis, people with problems controlling their spending can be diagnosed under "impulse control disorder, not otherwise specified."

Some experts have suggested that compulsive shopping is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or that it is a type of bipolar disorder. Although there are overlaps, neither are currently accepted viewpoints. One study also found an association between compulsive buying and substance use, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Compulsive shoppers also sometimes begin hoarding the items that they purchase. This can lead to further ramifications because their living spaces become overwhelmed and cluttered with needless purchases.

Although compulsive shopping (along with many other behavioral addictions such as kleptomania and sex addiction) was under consideration for inclusion in the DSM-5, it is not currently listed as an addictive disorder, nor as a stand-alone impulse control disorder.

Treatment

Some treatments may be helpful in addressing the symptoms of compulsive shopping. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach that shows some promise. CBT involves identifying the thoughts and emotions that contribute to the behavior and then replacing those thoughts and actions with more helpful ones.

Some research also suggests that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants often used in the treatment of depression, may also provide some relief of compulsive shopping symptoms.

Coping

If you are struggling with compulsive shopping, there are also self-help strategies you can use that will help you cope with your symptoms. Some things you can do include:

  • Only shop with friends. Enlist the help of friends and loved ones to help you manage your shopping behaviors. You may be less likely to overspend when you are with others and your friends can help you remember your limits.
  • Stop using credit cards. Relying on lines of credit when you are shopping allows you to temporarily focus on the positive effects of shopping while avoiding the downsides. Stick to paying with cash, which forces you to see the immediate consequences of overspending.
  • Find other ways to spend your time. Compulsive shopping is more likely to happen when you are feeling bored, so look for meaningful activities to fill your time. Instead of shopping, you could engage in leisure activities or hobbies. Hiking, gardening, reading, painting, practicing an instrument, volunteering for a cause, or spending time with friends are all things you might opt to do instead of shop.

A Word From Verywell

If you believe that you have a shopping addiction, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about your treatment options. Psychotherapy and support groups can be effective options, but self-help strategies may also be helpful for managing compulsive behaviors. Talking to a financial counselor can also help you sort out any difficulties with money as a result of your compulsive spending and help you better understand the potential long-term impact of overspending.

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Article Sources
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