The Shopping Addiction

October 1st, 2014 Brain World, Features

In April 2013 Buzz Bissinger, writer of the book Friday Night Lights, 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. The previous winter he’d attended Milan Fashion Week as an all-expenses paid guest of Gucci, and said it was when he started to seriously ‘grapple’ with a compulsion that could cost more than just his life savings. “My name is Buzz Bissinger,” he wrote. “I am 58 years old, the best-selling author of ‘Friday Night Lights,’ father of three, husband. And I am a shopaholic.”

Welcome to the world of Onioamia, the formal title for compulsive spending or shopping addiction, something a 2006 Stanford University study said six percent of the American population suffers from.

It’s a bad time to suffer from it, according to licensed clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology Ramani Durvasula. “There’s more and more stuff in society,” he 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 and bad retail behaviour. “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 medicalizing bad behaviour and absolving those who indulge in it from any responsibility for their actions (only too aware the pharmaceutical industry waits in the wings with any miracle cure we’re prepared to pay for).

Shopping addiction itself might not be a strictly recognized emotional disorder, but the behaviors involved can be the sort of things therapists deal with every day.

Annie Gurton is a British born psychological therapist and life coach with a BSc (Hons) in psychology and a BA (Hons) in humanities who practices in Sydney, Australia. She says any compulsive behavior is a ‘legitimate’ psychological condition or disorder.

“It’s not ‘normal’ because it’s out of control,” Gurton says. “Any behaviour 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’, ‘alcohol’, etc. Marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar of Dana Point, California has found that the mind can sometimes prime sufferers for addictive behaviour whatever it is. “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 28-46 percent 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, gambling, etc, many see excessive shopping as just an out-of-control behaviour.

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, and she’s even seen the same cycle of withdrawal in compulsive shoppers she has in substance abusers, a critical pattern when it comes to treatment.

“People think about giving the behaviour 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 hold of all the resources you could at every opportunity (usually food) meant you’d starve when times got lean. The human nervous system certainly wasn’t formed for the abundant plenty we enjoy in the modern West.

Might Manolo Blahniks just be today’s equivalent of a carcass of meat, representing status, family care and mating opportunities? In some cases that might be just an ill-advised hoarding compulsion, but to Annie Gurton, the lynchpin of shopping addiction might be more closely related to substance addiction that 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. One of the common symptoms is indeed bags full of purchases that stay at the back of the closet, never to be used.

Because the dopamine hit makes us feel better about ourselves, the next step is often addiction. The high of a purchase isn’t that dissimilar as the sweet flood of heroin into the bloodstream or the visceral thrill of placing a bet.

There’s also a common assumption most compulsive shoppers are women. In 2001 Lorrin Koran, director of the psychiatry and obsessive-compulsive disorder clinic at Stanford University Medical Centre, who conducted one of the then-biggest studies on compulsive shopping, found that 90 percent of sufferers were women.

Nobody was sure why – one theory was that women react differently to low serotonin levels. Where men tend to become more 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’s changed since 2001. The Beverly Hills Center for Lifestyle and Control Addictions says shopping addiction issues are increasing among their male clientele.

Maybe we still don’t tend to 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, claims a blog post on the Center’s website. Women buy more personal and home items we might consider frivolous or unnecessary (clothing, jewelry) whereas men tend to buy more practical things like electronics, car gadgets, athletic gear, etc.

All in the mind

While there’s no compulsive shopping gene, there are several theories about 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 trauma as a child, or their primary carer was depressed, distressed or having difficulties coping in their own life”.

As many psychologists will tell you, children who experience such disconnection can create adults with attachment issues that lead to insecurity, disorganization or low self-worth. Unable to understand why, many mask such feelings with drugs or alcohol, others with compulsive behaviour like buying or eating. Engagement in the behaviour is then ongoing even when it causes harm, shame and an inability to stop, says Ramani Durvasula.

“Shopping addiction is likely a hybrid disorder that falls somewhere on the obsessive compulsive spectrum,” she says, “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.”

Ramani Durvasula believes shopping addiction might be the expression of a much deeper behavioral aberration. In her work she sees narcissistic and borderline personality disorders accompany shopping addiction in a huge proportion 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 numbers of people sitting in therapist’s office crying because they can’t stop. Help is at hand with the right approach and tools and just like when it comes to any other damaging substance or behaviour, it’s a matter of changing your brain.

The formal view

Shopping addiction isn’t recognized as a clinical disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but the ‘Bible’ of the psychiatry field has always been more concerned with medical rather than emotional disorder, and in the medical sense of the term, the presence of an addiction itself is seen as the disease (whether expressed in shopping or drinking).

Using the DSM to diagnose and categorize is confined to an ever-narrowing medical approach to mental and emotional difficulties that doesn’t always apply, according to Annie Gurton. “Psychiatrists use DSM but not many other mental health professionals do,” she says. “Compulsive buying disorder can be part of a co-morbid set of symptoms or conditions with many diagnoses. I prefer to see it as an addiction, and I treat it as such.”


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