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 of a compulsive buyer include an obsession with shopping, anxiety when not shopping, the constant need to shop, and the purchase of unnecessary or even unwanted items. 

Understanding Compulsive Shopping

​​​​​​In its earlier form at the turn of the previous century, compulsive shopping was categorized as "impulsive insanity" by researchers attempting to define the condition. It was ignored or not taken seriously until the self-help movement shed a spotlight on compulsive consumption by documenting its effects.

Namely, it 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).

Key Takeaways

  • Compulsive shopping is an addiction to shopping for gratification that can lead to severe psychological and emotional issues.
  • Compulsive shopping is generally exhibited by insecure people with low self-esteem and low impulse control.
  • It can also be a symptom of serious mental ailments, such as bipolar disorder.
  • Therapy and antidepressant medication can help in the treatment of compulsive shopping.

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 often exhibit symptoms. Sometimes compulsive shopping can also manifest itself as part of a much more severe illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Much as bulimics will purge meals after overeating, compulsive shoppers are known to throw away their purchases. Some research shows a link between attention deficit disorders and compulsive shopping. Circumstantial factors have also been found to cause compulsive shopping behavior. Examples of such circumstances include avoidance coping, negation, and isolating factors.

Compulsive shopping is not the same as retail therapy, the occasional shopping binge in which many people indulge.

Studies suggest about 5.8% 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 19th 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.

Example of Compulsive Shopping

Mira is a compulsive shopper. She suffers from severe bouts of depression, where nothing makes sense and she is unable to get out of bed. Shopping helps lift her mood. However, she doesn't always stick to a budget while shopping. She derives most pleasure during the act of shopping, meaning selecting objects to purchase. To heighten and multiply that pleasure, Mira often goes on shopping binges.

For example, she recently went to purchase a scarf but ended up buying two coats, a purse, three lipsticks, a lampshade, two pairs of earrings, a new suitcase, and three dresses in addition to the scarf. These new purchases made their way into an already overflowing storage facility because Mira does not have enough space in her closet or home to accommodate them. She does not remember much about the binge or her convoluted reasoning for the purchases, but her credit card debt, which is already past due, is a reminder of the costs. Post-shopping binge, Mira immediately fell into a deep depression and refused to get out of bed for the next two days.

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 antidepressants in the family of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), as well as opioid antagonists like naltrexone.