7 Signs You May Be a Shopping Addict

By Cathy Cassata 11/11/15

Shop 'til your dopamine drops, then stop.

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Shop ‘Til your Dopamine Drops
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Some love to shop. Some hate to shop. And some need to shop.

“I was like a lot of girls in the U.S. who are interested in fashion, clothing and cosmetics, and I liked to shop,” says Avis Cardella, author of Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict. “But after my mother died unexpectedly when I was in my early 20s, shopping became problematic for me. I used it as a way of escaping my grief and filling a void for how much I missed her.”

For 15 years after her mother passed away, Cardella shopped daily. As a model and fashion writer in New York City, her environment didn’t exactly help. “The idea of shopping for things and looking fashionable was the norm, but for someone who had a problem like I did, it only made it worse,” she says. 

“I’d get an exhilarated feeling when I’d go shopping. I’d buy things and then immediately feel let down afterwards. Often I’d buy things I didn’t use or wear,” she says. “I’d get an urge that I had to have something and once I did, the excitement would dissipate and I’d have the desire to go out and buy again.”

Cardella began to feel more and more uncomfortable while shopping, but she recalls a tipping point that involved buying an abundance of underwear. “I became quite disgusted with the whole thing. Afterwards, I wanted to take it all and dump it in the trash,” she says. “It was then that I realized it couldn’t be normal that when I went shopping I felt dizzy and giddy, and sweat through my clothes.”

High of the Buy

Terrence Daryl Shulman, J.D., LMSW, founder of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding, and author of Bought Out and $pent! says Cardella’s experience is common, and many times it is not about the stuff purchased.

“Shopping can definitely trigger chemical reactions in the brain for some people. In the beginning, they get a real high, but then their tolerance builds up and they’re just trying to function,” he says. 

Whether you’re using a drug, food or something else to change the chemistry in your brain, Shulman says if you keep doing it, your brain isn’t designed to have a constant bombardment of pleasure chemicals. 

“They’re supposed to be released from time-to-time. When you keep firing these chemicals, they get depleted, which triggers cravings for more, withdrawal symptoms, and loss of control. All the same features of an eating disorder or drug or alcohol problem,” he explains.

Shulman, who counsels compulsive shoppers, shoplifters and hoarders, says many people describe shopping as a way of reducing stress or providing relief from anxiety rather than to get a high. However, he says the issue is complicated, and there are multiple reasons that drive people, including the following:

  • Low self-esteem and peer pressure
  • Poor money management skills, such as delaying gratification, saving, and budgeting
  • Feeling deprived or spoiled materially as a child
  • Coming from a family that used things to express love or as a replacement for love, presence and caring
  • To cope with unresolved losses and other challenging changes in life

A recent study from the University of Bergen revealed that shopping addiction is more prevalent in women and begins in late adolescence with it emerging into adulthood and decreasing with age.

The study also found that people who are extroverts are more at risk for developing the addiction because they tend to be social and sensation seeking, and therefore may use shopping for personal expression and to enhance appearance. Researchers stated that those with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem may also seek out shopping as a way to cope with their feelings. Though, compulsive shopping may be the cause of these, as well.

Co-existing Conditions

Underlying mental health issues can also be a driver, says April Benson, Ph.D., founder of Stopping Overshopping. She says it is estimated that between 30 and 40% of people with compulsive shopping also have a co-existing condition. 

“It’s very common. If someone’s compulsive and leans toward the hoarding end, then OCD may be present. Others may have had problems with alcohol, substance abuse and eating disorders, and the compulsive buying is the last problem to surface because it’s the most under-recognized and underserved of the disorders,” she says.

Shulman notes that people suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental health issues are at high risk for addiction, especially if their condition is not being treated. “Shopping helps them deal with uncomfortable feelings, at least temporarily,” he says.

Society-wide Issue

In addition to individual drivers, Shulman says society plays a significant part. 

“American culture is definitely leading the way in hyper-consumerism and materialism—even compared to other western countries—Americans have the most debt load individually and collectively as a nation. Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just about the people down the block anymore, now it’s the lifestyle of the rich and famous like Beyoncé and the Kardashians," he says. "Like our obesity epidemic, we don’t know how to set limits and live within our means.”

Shulman also argues that our fast-paced society feeds our addictions. 

“We have less patience and tolerance and greater access to potentially addictive substances and activities. The Internet is like crack cocaine: quick, cheap, and easily available, but highly addictive," he notes.

Benson says the issue is becoming a global epidemic, stating that people from 120 different countries visit her website annually.

Do You Have a Shopping Addiction?

The following Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale was given to participants of the University of Bergen study. Answer selections included: Completely disagree; Disagree; Neither disagree nor agree; Agree; or Completely agree. Researchers note that scoring “agree” or “completely agree” on at least four of the following may suggest that you are a shopping addict.

1. You think about shopping/buying things all the time.

2. You shop/buy things in order to change your mood.

3. You shop/buy so much that it negatively affects your daily obligations (e.g., school and work).

4. You feel you have to shop/buy more and more to obtain the same satisfaction as before.

5. You have decided to shop/buy less, but have not been able to do so.

6. You feel bad if you for some reason are prevented from shopping/buying things.

7. You shop/buy so much that it has impaired your well-being.

Shulman and Benson use similar questionnaires with clients.

How is Shopping Addiction Treated?

While there are several treatments for eating disorders, substance abuse, and alcoholism, Benson says there aren’t many for shopping addiction. “It’s called the Smiled Upon Addiction because it fuels our economy,” she notes.

To help those she counsels, Benson developed a program that includes aspects of psycho-dynamic psychotherapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness and motivational interviewing. 

“All these treatments have been shown to be effective for either compulsive buying or other disorders,” she says.

She holds in-person and telephone sessions and provides a text messaging service tailored to each person. “We designed it so it would feel like a good friend has your back. If they’re in trouble they can text the system and it will respond immediately in an attempt to talk them off that emotional ledge,” she says. 

Benson’s program addresses uncovering why the person shops, what triggers shopping, what the consequences are, and how to deal with urges and relapses. Her clients also create a vision of how they would like to be remembered. She provides techniques for how to deal with impulses in the moment, and discusses the high cost of credit card debt, among other things. 

“We look at how to provide self-care, self-kindness and self-respect. Compulsive buying can be like looking for love in all the wrong places, and the idea that you can never get enough of what you don’t really need is central. We keep looking and looking to fill something that can’t be filled by this,” she says. “If what we’re looking for is love and affection then buying 10 pairs of black boots isn’t going to do it.”

Shulman’s approach to helping shopping addicts addresses similar aspects as Benson’s. He works with clients in-person, by phone or through Skype or FaceTime. He is also one of the few therapists who specialize in treating those with compulsive stealing and hoarding behaviors.

“Many times people who get into stealing have been over-shopping and get into money troubles or debt because their credit cards are maxed out. This can lead to shoplifting, employee theft, or credit card fraud,” he says. “Sometimes it’s vice versa. People start stealing, get into trouble (which often is costly) so, instead, they go to stores and whip out their credit card.”

Shulman urges compulsive shoppers to get educated about their addiction and what recovery entails, and to educate their loved ones. Unlike the total abstinence goals of most recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, he says most compulsive shoppers—like compulsive overeaters—must develop strategies which lead to moderate and healthy shopping habits. 

He also suggests attending support groups like Debtors Anonymous, getting thorough psychiatric and physical evaluations and, eventually, seeking advice from a financial advisor.

“If you’re not emotionally ready, getting financial advice won’t be helpful,” he says. “It’s like a professional organizer trying to help someone with a hoarding disorder who hasn’t dealt with the reasons for their hoarding. The organizer can have the best advice in the world but if the person isn’t in the right mindset, it will go in one ear and out the other.”

Since, like eating, shopping can’t be completely avoided, both Benson and Shulman teach clients how to shop mindfully.

Shopping Healthily

In the 1990s, when Cardella was struggling with shopping addiction, the condition wasn’t widely understood and she wasn’t aware of any therapists specializing in it.

“It was the age of Sex and the City, Retail Therapy and Shop 'til You Drop, so it was difficult for me to get a handle on why I felt uncomfortable with myself. At this time, it wasn’t really thought of as bad or talked about as a shopping addiction,” she says.

Cardella says it took years of self-therapy to make the connection that she was compulsive shopping in order to avoid the heartache of losing her mother, and that it made an impact on her relationships. “While it was a struggle to accept, and it didn’t happen overnight, I forced myself to confront the fact that I would go shopping when I’d start to feel emotional about something,” she says. “I had a bit of a back-and-forth struggle where for a while I was trying to find that place where I could deal with myself and life and with shopping being a normal part of my life,” she adds.

Cardella says it took her about three years to really come to terms with her addiction and to turn her life around. During this time, she ended a long-time relationship, and reunited with family members and talked to them about her mother’s death. She also left the fashion world to write about photography. 

Her final step to recovery was getting credit counseling to help eliminate debt she accrued. 

“I didn’t owe that much, but for many years, I was just buying stuff and didn’t realize it was a problem since I didn’t have financial problems and didn’t think much of the fact that I’d put clothes in my closet and forget about them,” she says. “It was only at a certain point that I realized it didn’t make sense. I didn’t want to buy things anymore and not use them or feel good about them or myself.”

Cardella stopped compulsive shopping by 2003, and published her book Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict in 2010 to share her experience with others.

“Now shopping has more to do with me and less to do with what the chatter in the world is telling me,” she says. “I still want nice things and to look good, but it’s not something I use as an escape or band-aid for other motives. When I go to buy something, it’s to buy something that I want to feel good wearing, and I don’t hate myself for buying it. I don’t need to shop every day to define myself. In that regard, shopping is a much more enjoyable experience.”

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at https://cathycassata.contently.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.

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