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Compulsive shopping: a behavioral addiction

Compulsive shopping is excessive spending behavior that leads to distress or impairment. People with a behavioral addiction to shopping are characteristically preoccupied with pre-purchase tension or anxiety and cannot experience a sense of relief until they are able to experience the spend and purchase reward. Studies show that 5.8 percent of Americans have been diagnosed with compulsive buying disorder (Black 2007).

Currently, the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t recognize shopping compulsion as a mental health disorder or an addiction due to “insufficient peer-reviewed evidence to establish the diagnostic criteria and course descriptions needed to identify these behaviors as mental disorders.” Instead, compulsive shopping is considered to be under the umbrella of “other behavioral addictions” of which are also considered to be “non-substance addictions”. Behavioral addictions provide short-term rewards, just as substance addictions do and are repeated behaviors that persist in spite of negative consequences (Grant, Potenza, Weinstein, Gorelick 2010).

Very similar to impulse control disorders, people who experience compulsions to shop will experience an increased sense of arousal before shopping and get a feeling of relief and pleasure during or following a shopping spree. There are opposing views on how to categorize impulsive shopping. Some theorists hold that compulsive shopping could be under the impulse control spectrum, which would be a classification of an impulse control disorder. An opposing view to this is classifying compulsive shopping as an addiction.

Comorbidity of substance abuse and other mental health disorders is very common among people with shopping behavioral addictions or impulse control issues. Generally, the shopping problem isn’t defined or assessed unless there are other associated issues. For example, if a person’s shopping addiction or impulse control issue results in anger control issues, substance abuse issues or other mental health issues, then the shopping compulsion will be addressed.

Signs of a shopping behavioral addiction can include

  • Shopping for a “pick me up”
  • Mentally anticipating possessing a particular item
  • Ritualistic preparation of shopping trip
  • Having large amounts of unused clothes
  • Experiencing purchase blackouts
  • Hiding purchased items
  • Obsessing over money
  • Thinking about shopping all the time
  • Feeling shameful after shopping
  • Inability to abstain from the behavior
  • Craving the reward received from compulsive shopping sprees

Behavioral therapy for shopping addictions

Behavioral therapy focuses on helping individuals understand how their behavior leads to how they feel by engaging people in positive and socially reinforcing activities. Behavior therapy breaks down into three disciplines: applied behavior analysis (ABA), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and social learning theory.
Applied behavior analysis

  • A systematic approach of applying interventions based on the principles of learning theory in an effort to improve social behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy can help a person replace negative worldviews and thoughts that provoke them to compulsively shop with positive thoughts and views regarding themselves and the world around them. CBT allows patients to work on tracking their negative thoughts and worldviews and to go back and check the rationality of their thoughts. This thinking alteration theoretically results in feeling better, thereby changes the unwanted behavior.

Social learning theory

  • Social learning theory works by teaching other people proper behavior by showing them examples of the behavior. Retention of the learned behavior is necessary in being able to remember how to perform the behavior. Reproduction of the wanted behavior and practice taking part in the behavior will help a person believe in his or her abilities to conduct the appropriate behavior. Motivation will help a person to continue performing the desired behavior.

If you or a loved one would like more information on treatment for an addiction or impulse to compulsively shop, you can call the Mental Health Helpline at 855-653-8178.

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