What is 'Compulsive Shopping'

Compulsive shopping is an unhealthy obsession with shopping that interferes with the daily life of the afflicted. This ailment goes beyond mere consumerism and is psychological. Symptoms include obsession with shopping, anxiety when not shopping, the constant need to shop and the purchase of unnecessary or even unwanted items. 

BREAKING DOWN 'Compulsive Shopping'

​​​​​​​Compulsive shopping is an addiction that triggers pleasure receptors in the brain, much like drugs. The addiction escalates because the guilt over shopping leads to more depression, which prompts more buying. As with any other addiction, it can lead to professional, marital and family problems. Although there is some debate about whether this condition is indeed a mental disorder, compulsive shopping is listed as an “impulse control disorder” by the World Health Organization in its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). It is not the same as retail therapy, the occasional shopping binge in which many people indulge.

Diagnosing Compulsive Shopping

Compulsive shoppers typically are insecure people with low self-esteem and low impulse control. Not surprisingly, people with mood, anxiety and eating disorders the condition is often exhibit symptoms. Much as bulimics will purge meals after overeating, compulsive shoppers are known to throw away their purchases. Some research shows attention a link between deficit disorders and compulsive shopping.

Studies suggest about 5.8 percent of Americans are compulsive shoppers for at least some period in their lives. It’s more common among women, and it typically starts in the late teens and early twenties. The affliction does not always lead to spending beyond one’s means but can involve simply obsessing about shopping. Someone who continuously window shops or browses internet shopping sites, even without buying, is considered compulsive. Often it is the thrill of the hunt, more than the actual purchase, which brings pleasure. As such, a subset of compulsive shopping involves obsessive attention to online auctions, even for goods that are not wanted or needed.

Compulsive shopping is often considered a modern affliction with today’s consumerist pressures such as ubiquitous advertising and the easy availability of credit cards. In fact, an unhealthy obsession with purchasing goods is not new. In the nineteenth century First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who also suffered from depression, was known to be a compulsive shopper who ran up President Lincoln’s credit line.

Treatment for Compulsive Shopping

Experts say awareness of the problem is the first step in healing. To that end, research indicates that ten weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in reducing episodes of compulsive shopping. Support groups like Debtors Anonymous may also help. Medications can help, such as anti-depressants in the family of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), as well as opioid antagonists like naltrexone.

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