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The signs and symptoms of a shopping addiction
Can you really be shopping addicted? Since you’re searching for this on the internet, chances are you feel you’ve reached a point of no return. You probably want some answers.
I’m so glad you’ve landed on this page. I can only imagine how tough life must have become for you and how scarily out of control your shopping habit feels. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling quite alone with it all.
It is, of course, possible that you’re the partner (or other loved one) of someone who’s shopping addicted. In which case, I’m chuffed that you’re looking for ways to help! Read on, knowing that I’m addressing the person suffering from shopping addiction, but that this article is for you too.
If you’re addicted to shopping, I’m going to…
- help you understand what can cause someone to become a shopaholic,
- share some insight into why they might behave the way they do,
- give you practical advice on how to overcome your shopping addiction and what your treatment options are.
Is compulsive shopping a mental disorder?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) doesn’t recognise shopping addiction as such. But here’s what it has to say about addictions in general:
“Addiction is a chronic disorder with biological, psychological, social and environmental factors influencing its development and maintenance. About half the risk for addiction is genetic. “
(I’ll unpick these elements for you one by one further down.)
Let’s now look at the signs and symptoms of a shopping addiction.
What are the signs of a shopping addiction?
Shopping becomes an addiction when someone continues to seek excessive and detrimental retail therapy despite the damage it’s causing.
Since you’re here, I’m guessing that you’re already fairly sure you’re shopping addicted.
How much you must have been suffering, being unable to stop yourself shopping despite the devastation it’s causing.
How do I know that?
Because I’m a qualified counsellor with over 24 years’ experience of helping people with all kinds of emotional and psychological problems. And I’m on your side :-)
I suspect you’ll recognise much of the following:
- your financial health is compromised
- you feel mentally exhausted and/or have poor mental health
- your relationships (partner, friends, family and/or colleagues) are unravelling
- your ability to hold down a job is compromised
- your children are probably not getting all the love, care and support they’re entitled to
- you’re increasingly unable to function normally
- on a day-to-day basis, you accomplish very little that you can feel pleased with or proud of
And yet you continue to feel overwhelmed by that craving and compulsion to go out or get online and buy, buy, buy.
Where does that craving come from?
Know that your addiction to shopping follows the same pattern as any kind of addiction. It’s the same process as for drugs, gambling or drinking (to name but a few).
Here’s how addiction works in your brain in simple terms
Specific brain areas get flushed with feel-good chemicals when you indulge in your favourite activity. These chemicals are the pleasure hormone dopamine and neurotransmitters, which pass messages between nerve cells, called endorphins. The temporary high from your purchases is the ultimate reward.
Since that emotional reward felt so good, you’re compelled to experience it again and again. But your brain starts to get used to the feeling and it becomes less rewarding, meaning you crave a bigger and bigger hit each time.
Shopping relieves you of the pressure caused by your craving and/or compulsion to get out or get online and buy. Simultaneously, you also escape whatever it was that was bothering you at the time.
The reward becomes increasingly difficult to achieve and the craving ever more overwhelming and demanding. You’ll do anything to get that temporary high again to escape that pressure.
As the addiction takes hold, the pattern of craving and reward becomes more and more destructive. The cravings become more intense and frequent, driving you to increasingly extreme measures to satisfy that need.
Now for the signs…
5 common signs and tell-tale behaviours that you have a shopping addiction
- Secrecy around shopping habits
An unwillingness or refusal to admit how often you’re shopping, how much you’ve spent, what you’ve bought
- Spending more than you can afford
Maxing out credit cards, signing up for store credit, skipping bill payments to finance a shopping spree
- Buying things you don’t really need
Frequently coming home with seemingly unnecessary purchases, buying clothes you never wear or gadgets you never use
- Shopping as a reaction
To stress, after an argument, because you’re feeling anxious, low or bored and want to cheer yourself up or create some excitement
- Seeming nervous, guilty or aggressive after you’ve been out spending
Because you know you’re stuck in this destructive pattern but feel powerless to break your shopping habits
Could you be a compulsive shopper?
Take the interactive test below to find out if retail therapy is becoming dangerous for you…
What floats your shopping boat?
Identifying the type of compulsive shopper you are can help you to focus your efforts in the battle to beat your craving for retail therapy.
Your shopping addiction is likely to be fuelled by one of the following:
- Image improver
You want the best of everything - appearance is of paramount importance (yours, your family’s and your home’s)
Your hobby has become your downfall. You're interested only in finding and buying whatever helps to complete your collection
- Bargain hunter
Take a look at Part 2 of this article to see how you react to advertising and marketing language
- Buy to return shopper
Your purchases are like hot coals in your hand. You return them almost as soon as you receive them
- Trophy hunter
You just want to own the very best of everything
- Codependent shopper
You're attempting to buy love. Your gifts are really conditional upon a return gift of care, consideration, love, acknowledgement
- Compulsive shopper
You suffer from anxiety and not shopping for you can mean jeopardising your own or other people's safety
Symptoms of a shopaholic
If you're addicted to spending and buying, I know you’ll be having a really tough time. And you're likely to be very aware that you can’t afford to carry on like this.
There's a chance that you didn't watch the video to the end because you're just not ready yet to be confronted with it all.
Or maybe you're still trying to convince yourself (and everybody else) that the problem really isn’t that bad...
Might you have been denying that you have a problem?
Denial is a very common aspect of any addiction (such as, for example with an addiction to physical relations and adult content).
Don't for a minute think, though, that I'm judging you.
I'm just so pleased that you've reached this point - however desolate and beaten you're likely to feel right now. I'm glad that you're here now and reading all this. You're truly to be commended for this huge effort and potentially the start of your recovery.
Take comfort from the fact that denial is a natural defence. It tries to protect you from the hard truth about how much you’re hurting and why.
What lies beneath the addiction?
Your shopping addiction may well have started by simply enjoying the occasional purchase.
At some point, you would have consciously realised that it brought some relief. It felt great to be able to switch your thoughts from whatever was bothering you to something that felt so pleasant.
The precise mixture of creating good feelings and switching off the bad ones is very individual. That process is also partly unconscious - you're not consciously aware of what happens in your brain.
But below the surface - and behind those feelings - lies a set of subconscious needs that we all share as human beings. And it’s when those innate, essential needs aren’t met in balance that emotional and psychological problems start to arise.
Our essential emotional needs
Here are just some of our needs:
- The need for security (home, finance, relationships, work)
- The need for social interaction and connections (friendships, a sense of community and belonging, intimate relationships, fun)
- The need to give and receive attention (sharing experiences, understanding and being understood)
- The need for a sense of meaning, purpose, autonomy and achievement
- The need for self-esteem
To learn more about our essential needs and the inborn resources we have to meet them, take a look at this article: The Human Givens
How an unmet essential need can manifest as a compulsion to shop
The reward triggered in the brain by shopping can provide an escape from all kinds of problems and difficult feelings. Therefore, if you want to overcome your addiction you first need to understand what you’re trying to escape.
Here are some examples to help you think about what’s really going on for you right now.
You may have become addicted because maybe you are:
- Feeling insecure
About your job, your relationship, your abilities or yourself as a person.
- Feeling lonely
You may not have been able to find a place in your community, or perhaps have struggled to create stable friendships/relationships
- Feeling socially inadequate
Owning expensive things and buying whatever, just to fit in with the crowd
- Feeling depressed
Perhaps you don’t like your job, or your marriage has failed. A shopping spree can turn into a quick cheer-up fix (much better to treat depression without medication!)
- Feeling bored
You’re stuck in a rut and bored in life, and can’t seem to find the motivation to change direction or challenge yourself in new ways.
- Feeling worthless
Perhaps you’ve never developed healthy self-esteem, or it’s been severely undermined by a bad boss or bad relationship. Instead, you've developed unhelpful coping mechanisms to try and feel better about yourself.
- Feeling traumatised
By a difficult childhood, an accident or by being severely let down for some reason. See also: PTSD symptoms and Coping with trauma
- Suffering from loss
Trying to cope with the loss/death of someone or something.
- Feeling deserving
Feeling that somehow you deserve to spend.
You can see that there's likely to be more to your spending habits than you might have thought when you started reading this article. Maybe you've already become aware of what your particular underlying problem is.
Remember, professional help is at hand, right from this site. Hop over to my article on how to connect with a licensed therapist now.
For further information on how to help you overcome your shopping addiction, hop over to Part 2 of this article.
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“GoodTherapy.org.” Therapy for Schizophrenia, Therapist For, GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog, www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/compulsive-shopping. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.
How to get immediate help from a licensed counsellor
Your problem is never too small or too big, too silly, too embarrassing or too complicated to get personal advice (anonymous if you want) from a licensed therapist. They'll be happy to help.
- Click the image below and answer a few questions about yourself and your situation (it takes just a few minutes).
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- Write down what's troubling you to start (chat, text, email, video-chat)...