When Shopping Becomes a Problem

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Shopping is a popular and enjoyable pastime for most people. The reality, though, is, this harmless activity can turn into a self-destructive behaviour. Shopping addiction is a real problem, and many are likely suffering from it without realising it.

That said, we asked treatment experts from Substance Rehabilitation UK, who also work in the field of rehab for compulsive spending, about the initial indicators for someone’s shopping habits growing from healthy into destructive. We’ll also explore how the Covid pandemic magnified unhealthy buying behaviours.

Shopping Addiction: When Shopping Habits Turn Unhealthy

We all, at some point, give in to the temptation to make an impulse purchase. Perhaps you’ve spotted a gorgeous jewellery set while window shopping in your favourite store and can’t imagine leaving it behind. Or maybe randomly come across a pair of workout sneakers online, and you can’t resist adding them to your collection. It’s perfectly normal when impulse spending is done occasionally and in moderation. 

However, when your spending habits become an impulse-control issue, it’s a sign you may be suffering from shopping addiction. This addiction is defined by an uncontrollable urge to shop. It’s marked by repetitive, unnecessary spending. In other words, you’re unable to control your spending, even when it’s already affecting your finances.

This behavioural addiction also has several titles — compulsive buying disorder, compulsive shopping, oniomania (which is considered the medical term for shopping addiction), and pathological buying. Others also casually refer to it as “shopaholism”.  Research estimates that over 2.5 million adults in the UK have an unhealthy relationship with shopping, and they primarily rely on compulsive buying to fulfil their emotional needs.

Similar to other behavioural addictions like problem gambling, compulsive shopping has the potential to lead you on the path to financial and emotional disaster. This addiction, which affects both low-income and high-income earners, manifests in four phases:

Anticipation – You’re preoccupied with thoughts about your next shopping experience.

Preparation –You spend a lot of time planning where you’ll shop, when you’ll shop and even what cards you’ll use.

Shopping –This stage represents the actual shopping act, often characterised by an intensely exciting feeling.

Spending – You experience a rush of excitement as you make the final purchase, followed by feelings of regret, guilt, and an overall drop in mood.

How Compulsive Shopping Affects the Brain

Similar to other euphoria-led addictions like gambling or substance abuse, a compulsive buyer gets a “high”anytime they shop and complete a purchase. When your buying habits spiral out of control, every shopping activity you engage in will activate feel-good chemicals in your brain, particularly endorphins and dopamine, and you’ll experience euphoria.

Eventually, your brain gets hooked on these feelings and rewires to respond to shopping activities with pleasure. For this reason, you’ll constantly have an urge to shop, and you’ll do so repeatedly so that you’d experience this short-lived burst of pleasure. Over time, your excessive buying habits will morph into a full-blown shopping addiction.

Chasing this euphoria will keep you stuck in a never-ending cycle of compulsive buying. You’ll still feel the need to carry on with these unhealthy spending habits even when your mental and emotional health is worsening, your account shrinking, and you’re experiencing problems with your loved one because of your spending.

Compulsive Buying as a Coping Mechanism

Studies show that compulsive shoppers resort to shopping to cope with distressing negative emotions. In most cases, compulsive shopping is often a way to mask unpleasant feelings such as loneliness, anger, sadness, depression, stress, anxiety, and low-self esteem.

For instance, compulsive buying may seem like the best escape way to cope with low self-esteem. As you tie your self-worth to your possessions and ability to make frequent purchases, you may experience temporary relief from your esteem issues. Or, if you struggle with anxiety or loneliness, you may often turn to shopping to lift your spirits and fill the void. Using shopping as an escape from these emotions is destructive since you’ll, in the long run, have more deep-seated emotional issues to deal with.

When you begin facing financial problems due to compulsive buying, you may not be able to shop as much as you’d want. As a result, your emotional wellbeing will be significantly affected as you’ll have no healthy coping alternatives to deal with your emotions.

You're likely to develop mental health problems arising from these suppressed emotions. If you’re struggling with compulsive shopping, it’s best to confide in your GP or a trusted rehab facility, as they will direct you to the treatment option that will help you recover.

The Pandemic and Its Influence on Shopping Addiction

The extent of compulsive buying became clear when the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns began. While this global crisis ushered in a new level of growth for online businesses, it aggravated the spike in compulsive spending.

As the pandemic interrupted in-store shopping across the UK, people widely turned to online shopping platforms. Findings show that:

Online spending during the pandemic year (2020) went up by nearly 36% from the previous year (www.ft.com)

In 2021, almost one-third of consumers in the UK admitted to shopping online excessively (www.statista.com)

The convenience of online buying led to more people developing unhealthy spending behaviours. For those already struggling with compulsive shopping before the crisis, pandemic-related stressors worsened their circumstances. They turned to online shopping to find relief from negative feelings that accompanied the pandemic — stress, boredom, isolation, anxiety, and more.

Most people had a lot of free time indoors, which made it difficult to resist the urge to visit as many online retail websites as possible. Since purchasing was just a click away, indulging in compulsive buying became a deeply rooted habit for many.

Compulsive Shopping: Final Thoughts

Like other addictions, shopping addiction can take a toll on your financial and mental health and strain your relationships with loved ones. In most cases, compulsive shopping stems from unresolved emotional and mental issues.

Fortunately, there’s help for those who struggle with this illness. Recovery requires a change in attitude, thinking, and getting treated for underlying mental health issues, which are possible through professional treatment.

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