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Shopping Addiction: Causes, Effects & Treatment

Table of Contents

Understanding Shopping Addiction

The idea of retail therapy, buying things to feel better about your life, is a popular concept that is often used as a punchline in books and movies like “Confessions of a Shopaholic” or in lighthearted joking between friends. Consumerism and advertising are culturally normative, and many people would admit to occasionally using shopping to cheer themselves up. However, this normalization of shopping as a coping mechanism masks the experiences of those struggling with shopping addiction.

Shopping addiction, or oniomania, is a behavioral addiction that compels a person to shop compulsively in order to escape or cope with stress, anxiety, conflict, or other negative feelings and situations. Like other addictive behaviors, shopping is only a short-term fix that can both hide underlying issues and create new problems. Oniomania may be present along with other disorders like substance use disorder, eating disorders, impulse control disorders, or chronically low self-esteem.

While there is some controversy surrounding the reality of shopping addiction, individuals dealing with compulsive buying experience a number of serious effects that disrupt their quality of life and relationships. Sufferers of shopping addiction should know that their experiences are valid and that there are many evidence-based and effective options for treatment. With the right support and guidance, shopping addiction can be replaced by healthy coping mechanisms and an improved relationship with loved ones and finances.

Is Shopping Addiction Real?

Though some experts dispute the reality of behavioral addictions, arguing that a true addiction involves a psychoactive substance, the evidence shows that behavior-based addictions have remarkable similarities to substance addictions. Behavioral addictions may generate some of the same dopamine and serotonin secretions as substance addictions and can create dysfunction in the lives of sufferers. Such effects are comparable to the disruptions in the life of a person with substance use disorder. In addition to shopping addiction, other activities that can become addictive include gambling, internet use, and gaming.

Shopping addiction was officially recognized in the early 1900s when it was identified with other impulsive behaviors like kleptomania and pyromania. Since those early days, much progress has been made in understanding and treating shopping disorders. Because some experts continue to deny the legitimacy of shopping addiction, it’s important for individuals experiencing oniomania to be taken seriously by their physical and mental health providers who can offer effective resources and treatments.

There are many hallmarks of oniomania that place it firmly in the category of addiction. Shopping obsessively preoccupies the thoughts of individuals with shopping addiction because they constantly fantasize about or plan their next purchases. Many individuals who shop compulsively have ritualistic behaviors concerning their shopping and find relief from their negative feelings while engaging in the behavior.

Though people may feel a brief moment of euphoria while making a purchase, it is typically followed by overwhelming feelings of disappointment or emptiness. This cycle of highs and lows is present in every form of addiction and leads to the relentless cycle of individuals repeating the dysfunctional behavior at the expense of their qualities of life and relationships.

Identifying Shopping Addiction

Since shopping is a necessary activity that most people engage in on a weekly or even daily basis, how do you know if you have a problem? There are some common behaviors or patterns that indicate that your shopping may involve a deeper issue. In general, if you notice that your buying habits are causing you distress or negatively impacting your life, it’s worth looking more closely at your behavior.

Compulsive and Impulsive Shopping

It’s important to know that both compulsive and impulsive shopping can be a part of shopping addiction. Compulsive shopping is a pattern of using buying as a way of escaping negative feelings. You may purposely plan the shopping trip or be aware that you are using the behavior to cope. Impulsive buying refers to unplanned purchases where you make a decision to buy something in the moment. If you’re living with a shopping addiction, you may find it more difficult to resist your impulse to buy things, leading to habitual unplanned shopping.

Buying Patterns

If you notice any of the following patterns in your shopping, it may be time to seek help:
• Hiding your purchases from family members
• Frequently seeking status or relationships through the purchase of unnecessary objects
• Using shopping as your primary way of dealing with negative emotions
• Feeling out of control and like you are unable to stop shopping even when the behavior is causing financial or relational problems

Financial and Relational Impacts

Serious problems with finances and relationships are the most common disruptions faced by those with a shopping addiction. Racking up credit card debt during compulsive shopping sprees or using savings for impulsive purchases can ruin your financial health and cause a strain on your relationship with loved ones. Engaging in secretive shopping behavior and hiding purchases from your family members can also lead to breaches of trust. If your shopping is creating these kinds of issues, you could benefit from consulting a mental health professional.

Personality Patterns

People who experience shopping addiction tend to have some personality traits in common. These include having low self-esteem, being easily influenced or persuaded, having a kindhearted and polite disposition, being prone to bouts of anxiety or depression, and experiencing frequent feelings of isolation and loneliness. Shopping addiction may be a way to seek contact and connection with others through interacting with retail employees or shopping with friends.

Coping Strategies

If you suspect that your shopping is causing disruption or distress in any area of your life, there are a few strategies that can help you cope with your addiction on an everyday basis. While these tools can be helpful to recovery, it’s important to seek out professional help to deal with any underlying issues and to find long-term healing and support for your shopping addiction.

Develop New Hobbies

If shopping is the activity that fills most of your free time, choose one or two hobbies that interest you, and begin to invest your time in them. Try to avoid activities that require you to purchase a lot of equipment or gear, and focus on simpler pursuits like going for nature walks or reading novels from the library. Developing other interests will give you alternate means to release stress and to fill your free time with meaningful activities.

Delegate Household Shopping to Others

While it is difficult to cut shopping out of your life entirely, it may be helpful to reduce your exposure to retail environments by asking other members of your household to take the responsibility for routine errands like grocery shopping or pharmacy pick-ups. This will create fewer opportunities for impulse shopping and will reduce the stress of being in a shopping environment when you are trying to recover from an addiction.

Limit Credit Cards and Cash

If you are especially prone to impulse spending, it may be helpful to leave your credit cards at home in a place that is difficult to access. When you leave your home, only carry a small amount of cash to deal with potential emergencies. If you are dealing with significant credit card debt, you may even benefit from cancelling your credit cards to remove the temptation altogether and to begin improving your financial situation.

Create a Spending Plan

If you feel out of control with your shopping, exercise agency by creating a spending plan. You can do this alone, with a family member, or with a financial advisor. A mapped out budget will give you concrete guidance to refer to when you are questioning whether a purchase is compulsive or actually necessary.

Build Alternate Coping Mechanisms

When shopping becomes your only way of dealing with depression, anxiety, or conflict, you need to build other coping skills before you can truly recover from your addiction. Practicing meditation, going for walks, and talking to a friend are a few examples of healthy stress management.

Seek Support From Others

Wherever you are in your recovery journey, being in community with others who understand your experiences can help you stay mentally healthy and resilient. Seek out an online or local support group if you are just beginning your recovery from shopping addiction. If you’ve completed a treatment program, resources like Granite Recovery Center’s Alumni Program can get you connected with other individuals in recovery who can offer support and understanding.

Treatment Options for Shopping Addiction

Shopping addiction is responsive to treatment and, with the appropriate interventions, has a positive prognosis. There are several treatment options for compulsive shopping, and most individuals benefit from a combination of treatments. A mental health professional can offer guidance in choosing the best treatments based on the particular impacts of shopping addiction in an individual’s life.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps clients address unhelpful or negative behaviors by empowering them to identify those choices and to become aware of the thoughts that are driving those actions. Since shopping addiction is often governed by compulsive motivations that an individual has difficulty understanding or controlling, CBT can be helpful in making these thought patterns conscious so that they can be replaced by healthier alternatives. CBT contributes to long-term change by addressing underlying thought processes rather than focusing solely on external symptoms.

12-Step Programs

12-step programs are defined by a series of philosophies that approach recovery through personal responsibility and building community-based bonds. These programs are effective for both substance addiction and behavioral addictions. Because this approach includes an emphasis on rebuilding relationships that have been harmed through an addiction, it can be an especially effective treatment tool for those who have sustained significant relational breakdown due to compulsive shopping.

The 12-step programs at Granite Recovery Centers guide clients with addiction from feelings of powerlessness to agency, acceptance, and the open-minded attitudes to engage productively with recovery.

Family Therapy

Like other forms of addiction, shopping addiction impacts a client’s entire family. It is beneficial to work through family tensions that may have contributed to the development of shopping as a coping mechanism. Family therapy can also begin repairing relationship harm that was caused by the compulsive shopping. While family therapy is done as a group, family members may choose to undergo individual therapy if they need additional support while their loved one is recovering from a shopping addiction.

Financial Counseling

The financial damage caused by shopping addiction can feel overwhelming to repair. Because of this, financial counseling is an important resource for individuals struggling with credit card debts, depleted savings, or other financial woes caused by compulsive shopping. A financial counselor can collaborate with the client to build a plan for rebuilding their credit and for paying off their debts.

If the client’s financial problems created relational rupture, visiting the financial counselor with their spouse or loved ones may be a step toward rebuilding trust.

Dealing With Underlying Issues

Shopping addiction often coexists with other impulse control disorders or develops as a response to intense anxiety or depression. Even if the symptoms of shopping addiction are addressed, these additional issues may continue to cause disruption and distress in a person’s life. It may be necessary to pursue treatment for coexisting problems before an effective recovery from shopping addiction is possible.

Find the Support You Need

If you are dealing with overwhelming effects of shopping addiction, know that evidence-based help and compassionate treatment is available. Outpatient programs at Granite Recovery Centers can connect you with resources like CBT and further treatment for underlying depression or anxiety. Contacting us is your first step towards freedom from compulsive shopping.