We've all seen that pair of heels, that genuine leather jacket, or that awesome power drill and thought I've just got to have that. Nearly everyone has been prone at least once in their lives to an impulsive shopping spree, especially around the holidays when gift-giving becomes a priority.
However, there are those shoppers whose impulse buys are so common that they might be teased as "shopaholics." These shoppers have traditionally been women, but with the emergence of online shopping, more and more men are succumbing to impulse buying as well. Eventually, though, if gone unchecked, these quick and unplanned purchases evolve into a serious compulsive behavior.
"A compulsion is something that you're purposely doing but you can't stop," said Wade Milne, LCSW, a social worker for the University Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of Utah. The more the behavior progresses for a "shopaholic"—more seriously known as a compulsive shopper—the more likely it is to become an addiction. Just as an alcoholic has a compulsion to drink, Milne explained, so too does the compulsive shopper have a compulsion to buy things.
Simply put, an addiction is a pathological relationship to something or someone, explained Milne. "The hallmark of an addiction is that they can't stop." As for shopping, "Compulsive shopping that's doing harm to the person's life would be considered an addiction and would be treated as such," said Milne. The kind of harm caused by compulsive shopping includes falling deep into debt, destroying marriages and relationships, losing jobs, and even considering credit card theft.
Often, behaviors behind addiction are coping mechanisms for other problems in someone's life. "There's an underlying reason why people are escaping through their behavior," said Milne, who suggested depression and anxiety can be influences on the escapist behavior or substance abuse of addicts. "It becomes a survival strategy, in a sense."
Fortunately, because compulsive shopping is an addiction, it is absolutely treatable.
As with any addiction, a compulsive shopper whose behavior has become so severe that it is negatively affecting his or her life should be assessed by a therapist. Often, compulsive shoppers are susceptible to other addictions, so it's important to establish effective tools to fight any kind of urges. Cognitive behavioral therapy can work to build skills to manage the underlying causes and triggers, and medications like anti-depressants for underlying causes are useful to control impulses. Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, uses a group counseling approach which can also be extremely effective in battling unwanted behaviors and learning to stop them.
Although a compulsive shopping addiction does not have the intense cravings for a substance like addictions to alcohol or drugs, the urges can be just as strong as, if not stronger than other addictions. In fact, the seriousness of a compulsive shopping addiction is often downplayed because it is legal and doesn't have the same stigma that drug addiction or even alcohol have. Thus, for the compulsive shopping addict as well as for family and friends, the behavior often goes unchecked or unnoticed until it reaches a crisis level. A compulsive shopper can also experience relapses, especially because it's so hard to escape from the constant lure of shopping. "It's an integral part of our society," said Milne. "We're being sold something all the time. In that regard, it's a difficult thing to get a handle on because there are so many triggers."