Understanding Compulsive Shopping Disorder

Compulsive shopping disorder characteristics

Verywell / Laura Porter

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The American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not recognize compulsive shopping as its own mental disorder. Because of this, there are no consistent criteria for diagnosis. Additionally, researchers debate whether compulsive shopping should be classified as an addictive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mood-regulation difficulty, or impulse-control disorder.

Characteristics

People who have compulsive shopping disorder (sometimes called compulsive buying disorder) are often struck with an irresistible and overpowering urge to purchase goods in spite of negative consequences.

Characteristics of compulsive shopping disorder include:

  • Difficulty resisting the purchase of unneeded items
  • Financial difficulties because of uncontrolled shopping
  • Preoccupation with shopping for unneeded items
  • Problems at work, school, or home because of uncontrolled shopping
  • Spending a great deal of time researching coveted items and/or shopping for unneeded items

Lastly, in order to be considered compulsive buying disorder, the compulsive shopping behaviors must not be associated with another mental health condition, such as the periods of hypomania or mania with bipolar disorder.

The fact that compulsive shopping is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), makes the condition difficult to diagnose.

Many people who compulsively shop do so as a coping mechanism to mask difficult emotions like stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem. But shopping only provides temporary relief from their struggles. Their inability to control their shopping eventually commonly leaves them with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame.

Normal vs. Compulsive Shopping

Many people have occasional shopping sprees, particularly in special situations (such as birthdays and holidays). But occasional overspending doesn't mean you're a compulsive shopper. In fact, compulsive shopping doesn't have anything to do with how much money is spent.

Rather, it's the extent of the preoccupation, the level of personal distress, and the development of adverse consequences that characterizes the condition.

Who Is Affected

More than 1 in 20 U.S. adults (about 6%) have a shopping compulsion. It is believed that the condition has an onset in the late teens or early 20s and rarely begins after age 30. This age range is right around the time many young adults move away from home and establish their first credit accounts. Some research also suggests that women are more likely to be diagnosed with compulsive shopping disorder.

This doesn't mean that compulsive shopping is more common among women. It simply means that women are more likely to recognize and seek treatment for a compulsive shopping problem. Additionally, men are more likely to view their compulsive buying as "collecting" rather than a problem.

Many compulsive shoppers also experience one of the following co-occurring mental health conditions:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders, including bulimia and binge eating disorder
  • Impulse control disorders, including compulsive gambling, hair-pulling, and skin picking
  • Mood disorders, especially major depression
  • Personality disorders, including avoidant, depressive, obsessive‐compulsive, and borderline personality disorder
  • Substance use disorders

Health professionals making a diagnosis of compulsive shopping disorder need to be careful to distinguish between compulsive shopping and the shopping sprees that can sometimes accompany periods of mania in bipolar disorder.

Treatment

There is some evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may effectively reduce symptoms in many compulsive shoppers by helping people identify the ways in which they use shopping as a coping mechanism and develop healthier coping skills. However, findings have been mixed, and more research is necessary to determine what types of therapy are effective for whom.

In addition, there is also evidence that compulsive shopping disorder responds to treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Coping

If you are struggling with compulsive shopping, you can use many self-help strategies to help you cope with your symptoms.

  • Develop new hobbies. Most people who compulsively shop turn to shopping when they're bored or stressed. If you use shopping as a stress reliever or a form of entertainment, try to find a healthier replacement. You might give yoga a try. Not only is it great for stress, but it can also be a fun, healthy pastime that you can do alone or with others.
  • Stick to a list. When you must go into a store, make a list of what you need before you go and challenge yourself to stick to your list.
  • Enlist a friend. If sticking to your shopping list and only buying what you need feels impossible, try enlisting a supportive friend to accompany you to the store. Ask your friend to help hold you accountable. Better yet, if another member of your household can take on the responsibility of shopping for the essentials, delegate the shopping to them while you seek treatment.
  • Pay in cash. Give yourself a cash allowance and put the credit cards away for emergencies only. You’ll be much less likely to go on a compulsive spending binge when you have a limited amount of cash in your wallet and no credit cards immediately at your disposal.
  • Unsubscribe and block. Online shopping has made it even easier to shop from anywhere at any time of the day. To curb compulsive online spending, unsubscribe from marketing emails and use an app and browser extension to block or put limits on your access to websites where you most commonly shop.

For Loved Ones

If your loved one is struggling with compulsive shopping, you may not know how to approach them. Their unhealthy shopping habits may be causing a great deal of emotional turmoil and financial stress, leading you to feel frustrated, angry, maybe even sad.

It's important to discuss your concerns with your loved one. However, before broaching this sensitive issue with them, it may be helpful to work through your own emotions. Consider consulting a therapist on your own first. A therapist can help you make sense of your emotions and give you a better perspective on the issue.

When you approach your loved one, try to come from a place of love and concern. Avoid using shame ("You know better," "You're being selfish") to motivate behavior change. Not only is shame an ineffective tool, but can be harmful. Your loved one likely feels shameful about their compulsive behavior but recovery requires more than feelings of shame.

Further Research Needed

There is a lot of debate around how this condition should be classified. Some researchers link compulsive shopping to addictive disorders, grouping it alongside alcohol and drug use disorders and behavioral addictions like gambling addiction. Others have linked it to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Still, others link it to mood disorders.

With the prevalence of this disorder, as well as the evidence that the number of people affected by it is increasing, more research needs to be done to learn how to more effectively screen and treat people who live with compulsive shopping disorder.

A Word From Verywell

As with any mental health condition, if you think you're experiencing symptoms of compulsive shopping, it's important to talk to a trusted loved one and your healthcare provider about what's troubling you. Do not be ashamed: Compulsive spending doesn't make you a bad or irresponsible person and help is available. 

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