The Reality Of Shopping Addiction


shopping addiction

Buzz Bissinger, author of the book “Friday Night Lights,” once wrote an extraordinary story in GQ Magazine where he admitted to owning 81 leather jackets, dozens of pairs of boots and leather gloves, a $5,000 pair of pants, and a $22,000 coat. He had recently attended Milan Fashion Week as an all-expenses paid guest of Gucci — and said this was when he started to “grapple” with a compulsion that could have cost more than just his life savings.

“My name is Buzz Bissinger … the bestselling author of ‘Friday Night Lights,’ father of three, husband. And I am a shopaholic,” he wrote. Welcome to the world of “oniomania” — a compulsive spending and shopping addiction, which approximately 6% of the American population suffers from, according to a Stanford University study. It’s a bad time to suffer from it, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula. “There’s more and more stuff in society,” she says, “so this disorder is more likely to be expressed.”

Durvasula also blames the media culture we live in, one she says increasingly shows what people own and prompting us all to want a similar lifestyle, thinking it will solve our own problems. Worse still, a depressed economy sows even more resentment. “The frustration of not being able to get the lifestyle people want coupled with easy credit likely translates into more shopping to manage negative mood states, like frustration and helplessness,” she says.

Real Or Imagined?

Of course, many regard the term “shopping addiction” the same way they do “sex addiction” — another example of society making a medical term for bad behavior and absolving those who indulge in it from any responsibility for their actions. Another opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry and nothing more.

Shopping addiction itself might not be a strictly recognized mental disorder, but the behaviors involved can be of the variety that therapists deal with every day. According to Annie Gurton, a psychological therapist and life coach, any compulsive behavior is a “legitimate” psychological condition or disorder. “It’s not ‘normal’ because it’s out of control,” she says. “Any behavior the client would like to stop but can’t constitutes a disorder which can be treated. What separates a ‘big shopper’ from someone with a problem is that they want to stop and can’t, or whether they’re shopping to the point of financial damage and don’t recognize it.”

Human beings — and our destructive behaviors — also don’t fit neatly into boxes labeled “shopping” or “alcohol.” Marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar of Dana Point, California, has found that the mind can sometimes prime sufferers for addictive behavior. “Sometimes we can get the substance abuse stabilized through treatment and the manifestation of the buying may occur as a secondary diagnosis,” she says. According to some studies, alcohol problems accompany 28 to 46% of shopping addiction cases.

Of course, none of the above stops shopping addiction being one of the most socially acceptable disorders. We don’t laughingly say we need some “opioid” or “masturbation” therapy. In fact we tend to think of substances as having legitimate addictive properties because of their direct effect on our body chemistry. Along with porn or gambling, many see excessive shopping as just an out-of-control behavior.

But you’d be surprised how similar the activity in the relevant brain chemistry is no matter what the external trigger or resolution involved. In Gurton’s experience, the cycle of addiction is pretty fixed. She’s even seen the same cycle of withdrawal in compulsive shoppers as she has in substance abusers, a critical pattern when it comes to treatment. “People think about giving the behavior up, decide on a date and time, act on the decision, refrain from the activity, and then relapse and go back to the beginning. The trick is to remain in the pre-relapse phase as long as possible.”

First World Problem?

But maybe shopping addiction isn’t really a problem with us, just the world. After all, we evolved to acquire. In prehistoric times, not getting the resources you could at every opportunity (usually food) could mean starvation. The human nervous system certainly wasn’t formed for the abundance we enjoy in the modern Western world.

Are Manolo Blahniks today’s equivalent of a carcass of meat — representing status, family care, or mating opportunities? In some cases that might be just an ill-advised hoarding compulsion, but to Annie Gurton, the linchpin of shopping addiction might be more closely related to substance addiction than we realize. “When people are addicted to shopping it’s usually for the dopamine buzz they feel when they purchase something, a buzz they want to repeat,” she says, pointing out that often, shopping addicts don’t even care what they’re buying. Bags full of purchases that stay in the back of the closet, is one of the most common symptoms.

Because the dopamine hit makes us feel better about ourselves, the next step is often addiction. The high of a purchase isn’t so different from the sweet flood of heroin into the bloodstream or the visceral thrill of placing a bet. Dr. Lorrin Koran, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and former director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Clinic at Stanford University Medical Center, initially thought that 90% of compulsive shoppers were women. One explanation was that women react differently to low serotonin levels. While men tend to become aggressive and take more risks, women turn to behaviors like binge eating or compulsive shopping.

But as anyone who works with eating disorders in men knows, a lot has changed in recent decades. The Beverly Hills Center for Self Control and Lifestyle Addictions says shopping addiction issues have increased among their male clientele. Further research by Koran and colleagues published in The American Journal of Psychiatry has revealed that men and women display similar rates of compulsive shopping — affecting around one in 20 people.

Perhaps many people still don’t think of men as “shoppers,” or maybe men are simply more reluctant to come forward and admit to having a problem like shopping addiction. The other difference is in the types of items purchased. Women buy more personal items we might consider “frivolous” or “unnecessary” like clothing or jewelry, whereas men tend to buy electronics, car gadgets, or athletic gear.

All In The Mind?

While there’s no compulsive shopping gene, there are several explanations for why people are more susceptible to addictive and obsessional behaviors. It might have a genetic basis, but Annie Gurton thinks the reality is addictions are more likely to have an environmental cause: “When people with addictions, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, or depression are in therapy, there’s often some childhood trauma. Sometimes, their primary caregiver was depressed, distressed or having difficulties coping in their own life.”

As many psychologists will tell you, children who experience such disconnection can grow up into adults with attachment issues leading to insecurity, disorganization, or low self-worth. Many of them mask their feelings with drugs or alcohol, or with compulsive behavior like gambling, buying, or eating. Engagement in the behavior is then ongoing even when it causes harm, shame, and an inability to stop.

“Shopping addiction is likely a hybrid disorder that falls somewhere on the obsessive compulsive spectrum,” says Durvasula, “characterized by irregular behavior, obsessive ideation, and excessive time spent in the ritual.” Lisa Bahar agrees, referring to the feelings model of dialectical behavior therapy, which recognizes the event, interpretation, feelings, sensations, action urge, action, and aftereffects. “It fits basic impulsive behaviors and can be used with clients to create behavior change analysis by implementing skills.”

Durvasula believes shopping addiction might be the expression of a much deeper behavioral aberration. She sees narcissistic and borderline personality disorders accompany shopping addiction in a huge portion of cases. “Stuff carries status, which satisfies the narcissist’s need for external success validators, and the poor emotional regulation of borderline personality disorder can all contribute to compulsive shopping.”

The jury is in, and shopping addiction is real. Those who might be tempted to dismiss it need only witness the number of people sitting in therapist offices crying because they can’t stop. Help is at hand with the right approach and tools. Just like any other damaging substance or behavior, it’s a matter of changing your brain.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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