Why do we shop and shop?

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  • Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) or oniomania is believed to affect 8-16% of the UK population
  • Any addiction – including shopping addiction – is a way of changing or avoiding emotions, says expert
  • CBD is characterized as an impulse-control issue – just like gambling or binge eating – and has the potential to create a whirlwind of emotional and financial distress.
  • She says society needs to stop talking about “retail therapy” and “shopaholics”: it’s often trivialising what can be a serious issue
  • While behaviour change is clearly crucial to recovery, so is reaching out for help

An addiction expert at the Priory Group says there is a need for a greater understanding and recognition of just how damaging a condition like ‘shopping addiction’ can be, with its ripple effects and impact on relationships, work, finances and emotions.

Also known as 'oniomania',  pathological buying, compulsive buying, and buying addiction,  Pamela Roberts, Addiction Programme Manager at the Priory Hospital in Woking, says: “There is no doubt in my mind that shopping addiction in full control can be devastating and its wider negative impacts can be shocking.

“People with oniomania feel completely ruled by the compulsion to ‘shop and spend’ - either for themselves, or by excessive gifting to others. The time – let alone the emotional stress – involved in online searching, social media scrolling, visiting shops, juggling credit card bills, hiding purchases from family and returning goods can cause severe disruption.

“This serious form of addiction can lead to serious debt, dysfunctional family life, neglected or over-indulged children. And, it’s a problem that exists on a worrying scale: compulsive spending is believed to affect 8-16% of the UK population.”

Why do people become addicted to shopping?

Shopping has a tangible effect on the brain; research shows that the chemical ‘dopamine’ surges when anticipating a new purchase.  For some people, this “pleasure” rapidly declines, sometimes as soon as they’ve clicked to make an online purchase, and they need to repeat the process to experience the same “high”.

So, the increase of dopamine conjures up powerful feelings of reward and motivation. This usually remains balanced by self-control and practical financial considerations. When the process gets out of balance, and people become addicted to the pleasure sensation of spending, this can turn into a full-blown shopping addiction.

Pamela says; “Any addiction is a way of coping with emotions – so shopping for some people is a way to avoid confronting negative or uncomfortable feelings such as sadness, boredom, stress and anxiety.  If you’re overloaded with work, for example, you feel you deserve a treat. If you become reliant on that “hit”, it can develop into a negative habit, whereby your response to stress is always to buy something. In the online age, with many people having smartphone access, speed scrolling and “click & buy” can be an irresistible distraction from the working day and from other family or relationship problems. The rise of online auction sites is also drawing people into gambling style shopping with the idea of bidding on items, hooking individuals into compulsively checking on the status of their tender and often encouraging them to raise their bid.”

“In the past, the media has helped to perpetuate a stereotype of shopping addiction as largely related to women indulging in “retail therapy” or the UK as a nation of “shopaholics”. The reality is that addiction affects people regardless of age, gender identification, social status, nationality, upbringing, abilities and so on”

How do you know if you, or a friend, has a problem?

It’s healthy for all of us to review our shopping behaviour, says Roberts:

  • How much time do you spend scrolling through shopping or bidding sites, being pre-occupied by the latest releases etc? It could be a problem if you feel it’s a disproportionate amount of time or if it is so consuming that it is constantly and consistently distracting you from other priorities such as work, spending time with your family, socialising etc.
  • Do you buy an excessive amount of things that you really don’t need – and then don’t use them? Are you then hoarding goods at home, or going to extreme lengths to conceal items and your credit card bill?
  • Do you lavish people (e.g. your children or partner) with over-extravagant gifts? Do you feel the need to reward yourself and others with gifts to mark every single occasion or hallmark?
  • Have you made unsuccessful attempts to cut down on your shopping and spending? If you have removed shopping apps only to download them again or made a pact to reduce your monthly spending, only to shop or browse online for longer periods, buying and spending more – you may have a problem that you need to seek help for.
  • Is your shopping within your means or is it having a negative impact on your finances? Consistently overspending, taking out multiple store cards, juggling a raft of credit cards, running up significant debts in order to “fund” your shopping are all a real concern – and may well be having an impact on your levels of stress, your relationships and your health.

“Unpacking” the problem: the road to recovery

The most important step is recognising and accepting that you have a problem, before seeking help for a suspected addiction. During treatment - a combination of psychology, therapy and sometimes medication - patients can identify any deeper psychological problems that may be influencing their behaviour. Compulsive buying can be linked to psychiatric conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and bipolar disorder.

Roberts expands, “There is withdrawal as well, which surprises people.  Just like a dependence to a substance, there can be a period of physical shakes and emotions may be erratic when not shopping or trying to “cut down”, with people feeling restless and irritable.

“During treatment, there is also a psychological withdrawal, as without the behaviour, self esteem issues and uncertainties are exposed.  Fears and paranoia can come to the fore that are usually masked by addictive behaviour. With withdrawals come cravings and the mistaken belief that only the shopping will relieve the discomfort. Recovery requires people to become familiar with triggers and gradually develop a resilience to emotions that at first seem incredibly raw, even impossible to be with. Instead of hiding true emotions behind shopping, there’s a gradual process of building a tolerance of, and responding emotionally to, life experiences, which ultimately brings freedom.”

Learning positive coping techniques and alternative methods for receiving the same pleasurable effects that shopping gives, is an important part of treatment.   For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) allows patients to work with a therapist to better understand how shopping addiction has impacted their life, and how emotions, thoughts and behaviours are contributing towards the urge to shop excessively.  In addition, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) can help patients to manage compulsive urges to shop by incorporating a mixture of group-based skills training and individual therapy involving mindfulness and emotional regulation as methods to resist the temptation to purchase.

So, is smart tech to blame? 

A study by Royal Mail (Delivery Matters report)2 reveals that more than one in five consumers (22 percent) have bought something online after seeing something about it on social media. The use of social networks to shop online keeps increasing, with younger shoppers (48 percent), women (29 percent) and people living in urban areas (38 percent) among the groups that are significantly more likely to buy something after seeing posts on social media.

So, technology is certainly exacerbating the problem and could be a trigger for people vulnerable to this type of addiction. Roberts explains, “Shopping addiction is not exclusive to the age of online shopping, but of course shopping apps – with virtual doors open 24/7 – make it all too easy for addicts to seek and gain a shopping high. Social media tools and marketing techniques– such as shopping dots, swipe up “one click purchase” functions, as well as email incentives and offers – make buying instant and hard to resist. The “round the clock” element also means that there is almost no barrier to purchasing – no time to stop to think pre-purchase, or enable a “cool off period” to reflect on your decision.

“We shouldn’t be too quick to point the finger at retail and tech giants or the apps themselves - in the same way that the high street shop isn’t to blame. It may look like stealing candy from a child, but we must remember that not everyone had an addictive tendency.  However, whilst advertising hooks are not to blame for addiction, this incessant and aggressive targeting across social media platforms needs to be carefully monitored in the coming years as this form of shopping looks sets only to grow.”





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About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

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