Editor’s note: Dr. April Benson’s continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, The Stopping Overshopping Model: Therapy, Case Illustration, Preliminary Outcome Data, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PST on January 11, 2013. This event is available free with 1.5 CE credits for all GoodTherapy.org members. For details, or to register, please click here.
People come to therapy for all sorts of reasons. Their presenting issues may be depression, anxiety, or relationship struggles. But just as most couples don’t offer sex as a focus area in marriage counseling until they’re asked, spending and money issues are another area often cloaked by shame. The stress caused by this problem is pervasive. The results of being financially out of control—of living beyond one’s means—can and do exacerbate many emotional issues.
Let’s begin with some of the basics.
What Is Shopping Addiction?
A widespread issue with serious negative consequences, shopping addiction is “officially” defined as a maladaptive preoccupation with buying or shopping. It involves impulses or behaviors that are irresistible, invasive, and/or senseless, and typically results in buying more than can be afforded, frequent buying of items that are not needed, or shopping for longer periods than intended.
The buying preoccupations, impulses, or behaviors cause marked distress. They are time-consuming, often significantly interfere with social or occupational functioning, and can result in serious financial problems.
What Is a Compulsive Buyer?
A compulsive buyer is someone who shops and buys so much, or simply thinks about shopping and buying so much, that it drains his or her resources—time, energy, and/or money—and results in a significant impairment in some aspect of life. The problem deflects him or her from spending time, energy, and money in ways that are more truly satisfying.
Definition of a Shopaholic
A “shopaholic” is one who practices chronic, repetitive purchasing that provides immediate short-term gratification but ultimately causes harm to the individual or others.
Three cardinal features of the behavior are: irresistible impulses, the loss of control, and the carrying on of the behavior despite adverse consequences.
Common Signs of a Shopping Addiction
- Shopping when lonely, anxious, depressed, angry, or disappointed
- Feeling “high” or euphoric during a shopping episode
- Feeling anxious, ashamed, or guilty after a shopping episode
- Shopping or buying binges
- Shopping for items you don’t need or can’t afford
- Purchasing items without planning because you simply “must have it” on sight
- Feeling irritable when unable to purchase an item
- Failed attempts to curb or stop shopping
- Spending large amounts of time/money shopping in stores, on the Internet, from catalogs, or on television shopping channels
- Increased dependence upon credit (i.e., increasing your credit limit or the number of cards you use to shop)
- Shopping or buying that results in financial or legal dilemmas
- Shopping or buying that results in damage to your personal relationships and/or job performance
- Hiding purchases or shopping activities from family or friends
- Unopened shopping bags in your closet or other storage space
Who Needs Help?
Someone who answers “yes” to most of these questions needs help:
- Do you use shopping as a quick fix for the blues?
- Do you spend more than you can afford?
- Are some of your purchases unused or hidden?
- Do you feel guilty or ashamed about this behavior?
- Would your life be richer if you were shopping less?
- Have your attempts to change been unsuccessful?
Here’s a link to a free self-assessment that includes two valid and reliable compulsive buying instruments and provides information about what your clients’ scores indicate and what kind of help might be best to offer.
What Causes It?
A shopping addiction, like other addictions, usually stems from an individual’s attempt to address issues with which he or she is struggling, or to satisfy an unmet need. Every person with shopping addiction is different, and therefore each individual’s reasons for over-shopping differ as well.
However, here are some of the most common reasons:
- To self-soothe or improve a negative mood
- To improve negative feelings about one’s image
- To project a desired image (for example, wealth or power) or fit into a group
- In response to trauma (such as a loss) or anxiety
- To engender feelings of control
- As a form of revenge or expression of anger
- To maintain a personal relationship (for example, compulsive gift-giving) or hold onto love
- To avoid turning to another addictive behavior (such as drinking or smoking)
- As a response to existential or spiritual concerns, to try to give meaning to life
How Common Are Shopping Addictions?
A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggested that 5.8% of the U.S. population may be compulsive buyers, and that males and females are almost equally likely to have the issue. A 2008 study on the prevalence of over-shopping, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that more than 25 million Americans (8.9% of the nation’s population) demonstrate symptoms of a shopping addiction. Beyond the United States, a growing body of research suggests that shopping addiction is becoming more prevalent worldwide.
Despite the fact this is a growing concern, there are still few therapists in the United States who have specific training in working with over-shoppers, and fewer still who specialize in working with this population.
What Can Be Done?
As with other addictive behaviors, treatments for shopping addiction are numerous and vary in scope. There has, however, been little research to date on the efficacy of most methods; thus, shopping addiction treatment is still very much in a formative stage.
Many elements of our culture, from advertising to society at large, promise us that happiness comes from material, quantifiable possessions. At the core of shopping addiction lies impoverishment—not material, but emotional and spiritual in nature. Treatments for shopping addiction must therefore promote the cultivation of true wealth, of those nonfinancial assets that invigorate and vitalize: self-esteem, family, friendships, a sense of community, health, education, creative pursuits, and communion with nature.
Treatment approaches include:
- Psychotropic medications: These include antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and opioid antagonists. The results of medication studies in ameliorating compulsive buying behavior are equivocal. More research is needed.
- Group therapy: Empirical studies suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy and The Stopping Overshopping multimodal group therapy model are effective treatment approaches. Group therapy has many advantages: reducing shame and isolation, supporting each other in the struggle to succeed, and combating denial.
- Couples therapy: This kind of treatment is indicated when the dynamics of the couple reinforce the compulsive buying cycle and need to be teased out and explored before the compulsive buyer can make significant progress.
- Individual coaching and counseling: Successful coaching and counseling can help over-shoppers understand what they’re really shopping for, and can help them find life-enhancing rather than life-eroding ways to meet those needs. Creating an action plan, developing skills, and acquiring tools and strategies all specifically designed to help someone stop buying compulsively is the goal of the treatment.
- Debtors Anonymous (DA): Ideal for people with shopping addiction who are struggling with debt, this approach places emphasis on the spiritual components of surrender and recovery. Individuals work through the steps of the program and formulate a spending plan with a pressure relief team.
- Simplicity Circles: This is a forum in which shoppers can gather to discuss simplifying their lifestyles and the satisfaction these choices bring. While this approach does not directly address shopping addiction, the supportive, positive environment can address some of the needs that a person with shopping addiction attempts to meet by spending.
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