“With a closet full of stuff, why do I feel so empty inside?”
What is compulsive shopping?
‘Oniomania’ is the term used to describe compulsive shopping (or buying addiction), including online shopping. Compulsive buying is experienced as an irresistible, uncontrollable urge, resulting in excessive, expensive, time-consuming and out-of-control retail activity. It is usually driven by difficult (negative) emotions and over time results in significant social, personal and financial difficulties, with a person’s quality of life impacted. Compulsive shopping is distinct from ‘retail therapy’, as unlike retail therapy it is driven by impulse, experienced by the individual as unhelpful and significantly detrimental to a person’s finances, social life, relationships and emotional functioning.
Characteristics of compulsive shopping include:
- Preoccupation (sometimes felt to be ‘obsession’) with shopping for unneeded items.
- Consistently spending over budget (without recognising limits)
- Spending a great deal of time doing research on coveted items and/or shopping for unneeded items.
- Chronic shopping (far more than the occasional ‘shopping spree’ or ‘June sales shop’)
- Difficulty resisting the purchase of unneeded items.
- Hiding purchases or the ‘problem’ (e.g. having secret credit cards)
- Financial difficulties because of uncontrolled shopping.
- Problems at work and within relationships (from deceit, secrecy, spending more and more time away from work and/or home and progressive self-isolation).
Compulsive shopping is not recognised as a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (the manual typically used by psychologists in identifying and treating psychological difficulties). However, the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of a person who compulsively shops share similar characteristics to other problems for which people seek therapy, including those to do with managing difficult emotions and controlling urges or impulses.
Growing research suggests 9 out of 10 compulsive shoppers are women. While this may point to social factors (e.g. women shopping as a form of socialising with friends, ‘retail therapy’ etc.), it also may be in part underlined by how men and women differently respond to activity in the brain responsible for pleasure, joy, organisation, planning and decision-making. Unlike women, men may respond more to these changes via other impulsive risk-taking behaviours or via aggression.
What drives compulsive shopping?
Typically, compulsive shopping behaviours are in response to feelings of low self-worth, anxiety, depression, loneliness or anger. Some people are aware of these emotions related to their shopping; others are not. When these emotions intensify (or there are other stressors in the person’s life), urges to buy things also intensify. The person shops to ‘manage’ (e.g. avoid, distract from or respond to) these difficult feelings. Initially, there may be relief of tension. Later, however, other feelings like shame, remorse and guilt arise. When a person’s finances are affected, anxiety and depression can also worsen. When the individual then shops again to manage this anxiety or depression (for example), the cycle continues.
At the time of a purchase, many compulsive shoppers say they feel “high” but later may not remember the purchase. For some researchers, this can be likened to the ‘immersive’ state of a problem gambler playing the ‘pokies’.
Difficulties related to compulsive shopping
Problems with managing emotions and urges (or impulses) can be related to a variety of other psychological difficulties – binge-drinking, binge-eating, risk-taking behaviours (e.g. gambling) and self-harm. Compulsive buying behaviours are commonly seen alongside mood, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorder difficulties. Within these psychological problems the person tends to have difficulty understanding their feelings and can also have low tolerance for unpleasant psychological states such as bad moods.
The long-term course of compulsive buying means that over time a person becomes preoccupied with thinking about shopping, finding it more and more difficult to control their urges to buy. Shame and secrecy about purchases (in the face of mounting debt) are related to a number of other areas of life negatively affected – work, social life, friendships and relationships.
Treatment for compulsive shopping
Research has shown that Compulsive Shopping is best treated using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). This therapy involves (but is not limited to) the following strategies:
Identification of and responding skilfully to different thoughts linked to the urges to shop. This also involves exploration of thoughts and beliefs underlying shopping (and other impulses) before changing the unhelpful beliefs that are sustaining the problem.
Emotion Management Skills
Identification of and learning different responses to mood states (to manage distress). These skills help to decrease anxiety, tolerate distress and learn more helpful and effective ways of dealing with the emotions linked to shopping. Sitting with distress (without acting on it) can be done in the therapy room and practiced outside of sessions. Other ‘distress tolerance’ skills can also be formulated with your therapist. Over time, the feelings a person may have brought to therapy (low coping and a sense of hopelessness) are replaced with feelings of agency, control and confidence.
Impulse (Behavioural) Control
People who suffer from Compulsive Shopping may in fact be shopping to avoid experiencing feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness, etc. Behavioural experiments involve practising alternative ways of responding to different emotions so that effective coping behaviours (rather than shopping) are learned.
Impulses (and impulsive behaviours) tend to worsen when a person is stressed. Learning effective ways of coping is important and is done collaboratively, with the support of your therapist.
Decision Making and Problem-Solving Skills
Learning ways to problem solve in practical and sustainable ways.
Management of the environment
In order to ensure ongoing progress, a client and therapist may workshop different ways of modifying a person’s way of living to change their problematic behaviours (e.g. lending a friend their car to restrict transport, going to a shopping centre with a supportive friend).
A combination of medication and CBT may also be very helpful, depending on the needs of the individual. For example, antidepressant medications (e.g. Serotonin Selective Re-uptake Inhibitors or SSRIs) have been shown to be helpful in reducing obsessive thought patterns and impulsive behaviours. However, taking medication depends on the needs of the individual, the severity of their problem and personal beliefs about medication.
Where to go from here?
If you would like to find out more about our treatment for compulsive shopping, or to book an appointment with one of our clinical psychologists who provides treatment for this condition, please email or call the clinic on 02 9438 2511.