Compulsive shopping has repercussions

By Phyllis Hanlon
December 1st, 2011

The Halloween decorations no sooner come down before retailers begin a full-blown campaign to lure consumers into the stores with cash, check or credit card in hand for special holiday sales. Radio and television ads, newspaper flyers and discount coupons by the dozen entice the public to “Hurry In, Buy Now, Supply Limited!” How can a person resist these bargains? Those who find it challenging to control the impulse to “shop until you drop” may find themselves immersed in a sea of credit card debt, family strife or worse.


A 2006 study published in the journal Psychiatry indicates that 5.8 percent of American households have a problem with over-shopping/over-spending. But when does a person cross the line from shopping for fun to compulsive spending? Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of psychology, director of the office of national scholarship advisement and author of “The Search for Fulfillment,” defines excessive shopping as spending money a person does not have, prompting concern from friends and family and inability to self-identity with the behavior. “To the individual, it seems harmless,” she says. “But when your credit rating tanks or you get behind on your payments, you can get into a lot of trouble.” While shopping to excess technically is not a diagnosis, the behavior presents as a form of anxiety under the umbrella of compulsive behavior disorders.

April Benson, Ph.D., a private practitioner in New York City and creator of Stopping Overshopping, LLC, a treatment program for compulsive shoppers, notes that it becomes apparent spending is out of control and requires attention when lives become impaired. “Interpersonal relationships may suffer. Fighting within families happens and the person feels guilt and shame,” she says. Although the emotional impact can be overwhelming, physiological symptoms, such as gastrointestinal issues and occupational signs may also occur. “People begin working two and three jobs to pay for all their purchases,” Benson says.

While overspending can lead to overwhelming credit card debt, a cluttered living space, remorse over the behavior and family strife, more serious cases may result in divorce, incarceration and even suicide. “I know of two men who killed themselves because they couldn’t keep up the lifestyle their families had become used to,” says Benson.

John V. Cabibi, Ph.D., who has a private practice in Concord, N.H., explains that there is a connection between neurochemical activity and brain-impulse control that specifically affects the right frontal lobe, the part of the brain that impacts executive functioning. “If a person is depressed, executive functioning will be impaired. The person will feel empty, needful,” he says. “When a person is tense, bored or has what I call ‘stimulus hunger,’ he’ll resort to food, drugs, sex, high risk behavior or shopping. Shopping releases neurochemicals in the brain and reinforces the behavior fairly rapidly.”

This cycle of excessive shopping, guilt, remorse and shame contributes to low self-esteem, driving the person, who is riddled with inadequacy and insecurity, to the nearest mall, he adds.

One key factor driving excessive shopping/spending could be the plethora of advertising images that assault us on a daily basis. “From a sociological perspective, the media play a big role. They create this condition,” Whitbourne says.

Retailers pull several tricks out of their advertising bag, especially during the holidays. Whitbourne cautions individuals to avoid supposed discounts during this time of year. “Social psychology is used on consumers to make them think they are getting a deal,” she says, noting that certain large department stores excel at this strategy. “They advertise a one-day sale, but then offer a preview day. So it really becomes a two-day sale. These things form an emotional connection. The average person doesn’t know this and can be manipulated.”

While bricks and mortar stores pose a challenge for compulsive shoppers, virtual spending can be harder to resist. “Research suggests the Internet is a fertile shopping ground and attracts compulsive shoppers like a magnet,” says Benson.

Whitbourne adds that once a consumer makes an online purchase, that retailer automatically often adds the name to its database and begins flooding the person’s email inbox. “It takes a great deal of ego strength to resist these emails for people with impulse problems,” she says.

Although external stimuli may be partially responsible for encouraging compulsive shopping behavior, socio-cultural factors also play a role, Whitbourne notes. “There are bio-psycho-social components of this behavior. How your parents and peers socialized you will steer you in a particular direction,” she says. Basically, shopping to excess fills a void in a person’s life and could also be a tactic to avoid some unpleasant situation, according to Whitbourne.

To effectively treat the problem, Whitbourne says that psychologists must first identify the underlying causes. “What thoughts precede the behavior? The person has to get on top of this and be conscious,” she says. “The client must also have an alliance with the therapist.”

Most importantly, the person has to want help, according to Benson. After a year of research, she has determined that psychodynamics, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing and acceptance and commitment work best when client and therapist collaborate.

While CBT, structural counseling and, in extreme cases, medication are proven therapies, individualized treatment should guide the therapist, says Cabibi. “Be aware that behavioral motivation is multi-determined and individualistic and that the treatments vary accordingly. Find out the motivation, the person’s perception and their level of impulse control and then tailor treatment to the individual,” he says. “For someone with ADD (attention deficit disorder), you need to teach external controls. This might create a bit of obsessive-compulsive behavior. But if you ritualize shopping – for example, go to the store on a certain day and follow a list – they won’t overspend.”

Surprisingly, compulsive shopping is an equal opportunity problem. Benson notes a PayPal study that reveals men spend more on the Internet than women and two other studies back this data up. The difference, she notes, is that men tend to be called “collectors.”

Regardless of gender, the problem of compulsive shopping can have serious repercussions and needs to be taken more seriously. Benson says, “Society considers this addiction simply consumption that fuels our economy. It’s usually smiled upon.”

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