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Retail Therapy or Shopping Addiction?

Updated on March 22, 2013

The darker side of retail therapy

Have you seen the ITV series Mr Selfridge? If not, it's is a British period drama about Harry Gordon Selfridge, who founded the famous London department store Selfridges still found on Oxford Street today.

The program is loosely based on real life and tells the tale of Mr Selfridge, a businessman from Chicago who brought the concept of shopping to early 20th Century London. Now a hundred years later, venturing out on a Saturday afternoon to buy things is considered a major pastime. Most people do not think twice about indulging in a little retail therapy every now and then.

Whilst shopping can be a pleasurable activity for some, for others it has a darker side. Psychologists, doctors and addiction experts now believe that one in ten people suffer from oniomania, an uncontrollable, compulsive desire to buy things. Shopping addiction may manifest itself in several ways.

Some possible symptoms of shopping addiction:

  • Buying excessive numbers of clothes, trinkets, books, etc., usually over a person's means
  • Having unworn items of clothing with the labels still on hanging in the wardrobe
  • Hiding purchased goods or keeping credit card bills a secret from family, friends or a partner
  • Feeling anxiety or suffering from sleepless nights because of money worries, excessive spending or debt
  • Appearing to go from one financial crisis to another
  • Using credit cards impulsively and self-destructively, being trapped in a downward spiralling debt cycle
  • Shopping to “lift mood” when sad, unhappy or angry and shopping to “celebrate” when something has gone well
  • Shopping impulsively
  • Not being clear about financial due dates, terms and conditions, like insurance payments, load and credit card interest rates, etc.
  • Frequently juggling bills and taking risks with important things like health (forgoing dentists visits in order to buy clothes) or legal matters (driving without car insurance because money has been spent shopping)
  • Not planning for retirement or savings
  • Frequent arguments with family, flatmates, colleagues or partners about use of money
  • Self-confessed financial management issues like "money burns a hole in my pocket" or "I'm not good with money"

How does shopping addiction "work"?

Shopping addiction is debatably about the use of money as a "drug". When a compulsive shopper has money, they use it to buy items. The transaction gives a feeling of elation, like getting "a fix" or being "high". Presumably this is because the act of purchasing triggers a chemical reaction in the brain and the body and this makes the shopper feel good, albeit temporarily. After a spending spree, the initial euphoria quickly dies. A realisation that the “drug” (money) has run out usually follows, accompanied by feelings of anxiety, depression and shame. This cycle repeats itself over and over again, becoming worse each time.

Psychological, financial and legal consequences

Psychologists, doctors and addiction treatment centres, as well as those who have faced their shopping addiction, can fully grasp the frightening nature of compulsive buying. The brain biochemistry is comparable to that of drug addiction or alcoholism with its highs, lows and resulting self-destructive behaviour. Just like other addictions, compulsive shopping will only get worse if it is left untreated. At its worst it can lead to severe depression, suicide or mental illness. The financial and legal consequences may range from being chased by debt collectors, facing bankruptcy or being summoned to court. In some cases where the path to addiction has led a compulsive shopper to evade tax or steal or embezzle money, a jail sentence may be the end result. Below is a short radio interview from Youtube with an addiction expert discussing compulsive shopping in more detail.

Why asking for help is key

Recovered alcoholics and drug users often say that they could not have gotten well from their addictions until they decided to admit their problem and reach out for help. This is also true for shopping addicts. Until a compulsive shopper is ready to face the financial and emotional damage that they have done to themselves and perhaps also their loved ones, they cannot begin to get better. And because addiction by its very nature is a disease that leaves the sufferer in personal isolation, nursing their shame in secrecy, it is vital that the person seek the help of a professional addiction therapist, recovery centre or a self-help group.

Who can help?

If shopping has lost its lustre and retail therapy has turned destructive for you or someone you care about, it may be difficult to face the truth and confront the matter. There is help at hand, however. The first point of call might be a doctor or a reputable psychologist or a therapist. Several addiction rehabilitation clinics and centres offer treatment programs for compulsive shoppers and many of them also recommend that compulsive shoppers continue to attend Debtors Anonymous meetings after their initial treatment. The American author Jerrold Mundis has also written some helpful books on compulsive debting and issues with money.

It's worth it

Getting outside help is the number one priority, however scary it may feel. In the end it will be worth it. Learning to control shopping will not work here. If shopping is ruining your life and you just cannot stop, then things may have gotten out of control. Perhaps it is time to throw in the towel and ask for help. Why? Because everybody deserves to feel the freedom and contentment that comes with having total piece of mind over money.


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