Do Only Women Deal with Shopping Addiction? Addressing a Common Myth

Crowd of people walking on busy sidewalk and carrying shopping bagsIt’s difficult to spend time in any women’s community, online or otherwise, without hearing a reference to retail therapy. In the popular press, shopping is gendered as a pursuit for women. So resources for people with compulsive buying disorder, sometimes called oniomania, often focus on women. The truth is that men, women, and people not on the gender binary can struggle with shopping addiction.

What Is Shopping Addiction?

Buying things is an inescapable part of life. Most people who can afford to do so make some unnecessary purchases. It can even be difficult to discern what constitutes an unnecessary purchase—are seeds or a rose bush really unnecessary to a dedicated gardener? These factors all make it difficult to separate typical shopping behavior from a shopping addiction.

Additionally, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) does not list shopping addiction or compulsive buying as a separate addiction. This makes diagnosis more challenging, especially for those who want to know whether they meet diagnostic criteria.

People who are addicted to shopping are often preoccupied with it. While most spend money, some simply think about or plan to shop. Some characteristics of shopping addiction as opposed to normal shopping include:

  • Shopping that continually causes negative personal consequences, such as debt or relationship problems.
  • Being preoccupied by shopping and spending time thinking about shopping instead of other pursuits.
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed about shopping.
  • Concealing purchases or shopping.
  • Being unable to quit shopping or thinking about shopping.
  • Continually using shopping to cope with negative emotions.
  • Spending more money than one can afford.
  • Consistently buying things that go unused.

Shopping addiction can have devastating effects on a person’s life. It may undermine their ability to make important purchases such as buying a home or funding college. It can cause them to drain their savings. It may lead to debt and bankruptcy or destroy relationships.

Because people who compulsively shop often do so to cope with stress, the stress of compulsive shopping can actually fuel more shopping.

People of all genders can experience an addiction to shopping or buying. Most research estimates that 6-7% of people worldwide compulsively shop.

What Research Says About Shopping Addiction and Women

People of all genders can experience an addiction to shopping or buying. Most research estimates that 6-7% of people worldwide compulsively shop.

Research on gender differences is mixed and inconclusive. A German study found equal rates of compulsive buying among men and women. A Spanish study arrived at a different conclusion, finding slightly higher rates of compulsive shopping among women.

Despite the fact that people of all genders may shop too much, 80-94% of people seeking treatment for compulsive buying are women. A 2016 analysis argues that this may not be because of gender differences in shopping style. Instead, this may be due to an increased likelihood that women will recognize and seek help for a problem with shopping.

A 1997 article analyzed compulsive shopping among women through a feminist lens. That article argues compulsive shopping is often compensatory in nature. Compensatory consumption is an attempt to overcome perceived or actual deficits in status, relationships, or self-perception. In a sexist society, the article argues, compensatory consumption may be one way women cope with gender inequity.

Culture, Family, and Genetics: What Leads to Shopping Addiction?

Like other mental health issues, no single factor has been proven to cause all cases of shopping addiction. Shopping addiction is a complex mental health challenge that may be caused or exacerbated by numerous factors.

While some analysts speculate that compulsive shopping may be genetic, no research has found a clear genetic link to compulsive buying. However, many people who shop compulsively have another mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. These diagnoses do have genetic underpinnings, so genetics could play an indirect role.

Despite a dearth of genetic research, compulsive shopping sometimes runs in families. This may be because parents and other caregivers model to children that shopping is a good way to relieve psychological distress.

Some other factors that may play a role in the development of compulsive shopping include:

  • Living in a market economy in which numerous purchase options are available.
  • A materialistic outlook.
  • Low self-esteem or a weak sense of identity.
  • Access to credit cards or to enough disposable income to compulsively shop.

Brain imaging scans of people with behavioral addictions, including compulsive shopping, have found differences in several regions of the brain. Those include the limbic system, which plays a role in memory and emotion, and various areas of the brain associated with reward and motivation.

Why Do People Become Compulsive Shoppers?

Most research suggests that people who shop compulsively do so to alleviate feelings of boredom, anxiety, sadness, depression, and other painful emotions. In some cases, people shop to alleviate discomfort caused by shopping itself. For instance, a person who receives a large credit card bill may try “retail therapy” to cope.

People who use shopping to deal with psychological pain are more likely to have certain personality traits. Those include:

For When You Can’t Stop Shopping: Overcoming Shopping Addiction

Shopping addiction often happens in secret, but admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Shopping addiction is not a character defect. It’s a real diagnosis that warrants real treatment.

Some people find relief from 12-step programs such as Debtors Anonymous. Others find that antidepressants, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) help, possibly by alleviating underlying psychological symptoms. Most people with an addiction to shopping need therapy to help them quit.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people understand the connection between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, has proven particularly helpful for fighting compulsive shopping. Other forms of therapy may also help by:

  • Supporting people as they manage painful emotions without shopping.
  • Helping repair broken relationships.
  • Offering emotional support for managing debt and other financial issues.

Shopping addiction is treatable, as are the many problems it can cause in a person’s life. For help managing an addiction to shopping, begin your search for a therapist here.


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