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Compulsive buying disorder (CBD): is it really an addiction?

Reading time: 10 mins
Compulsive buying disorder (CBD): is it really an addiction?

The chances that you meet someone who claims to be a ‘shopaholic’ in today’s society are high. This comes with little surprise as the word is frequently used generically and you may have witnessed many people take pride in their shopping habits. 

However, the term has also been taken far too many times outside of its accepted context. This is because, for some people, their shopping habits can be far more serious and go beyond just being a ‘shopaholic’. But when does shopping become a full-blown disorder?

Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) is an uncontrollable and compulsive desire to shop and make purchases despite harmful consequences. Otherwise known as oniomania, the condition has certain indicators to look out for.

The symptoms of CBD include shopping to reduce stress, buying unnecessary items that go almost entirely unused, experiencing euphoria or a high while shopping, making more purchases than originally intended, and hiding purchased items from family or friends. A compulsive shopper may also have no control over their overspending habits, hence another term used to refer to the condition is compulsive spending.

CBD tends to follow a clear pattern composed of four stages, namely anticipation, preparation, shopping, and spending. It can also have dire consequences for a person. The effects of compulsive buying include a brief euphoria or elated mood mixed with feelings of guilt and shame, financial problems, mounting debt, problems at work or school, neglect of responsibilities at home, and impaired personal relationships.

There is a set of defining features unique to the condition. The most common characteristics of compulsive shopping include the inability to resist the urge to make unnecessary purchases, having persistent thoughts about buying unneeded items, and suffering from work, school, and relationship problems due to overspending. 

CBD is mainly treated with the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and counseling. In other cases where the condition coexists alongside a mental health disorder, psychotropic medications may be used to curb compulsive buying disorder.

What is Compulsive buying disorder?

Compulsive buying disorder refers to a behavioral disorder characterized by an insatiable urge to buy consumer goods and a lack of self-control with spending money. This often leads to a significant impairment in one’s psychosocial functioning. 

Compulsive buyers tend to engage in the continued repetition of the compulsive behaviors and may spend beyond their means, typically resulting in serious repercussions.

What are the causes of Compulsive buying disorder?

The causes of compulsive buying disorder are a combination of biological, psychological, as well as cultural factors, including changes in brain chemistry, negative emotions, and childhood trauma. 

CBD changes the brain’s chemistry by inducing a surge of dopamine levels in the brain while shopping. This dopamine boost happens when people anticipate a reward and once the brain associates excessive buying with feelings of reward and pleasure, the person gets motivated to engage in the behavior again and again. 

Another potential cause behind the condition is poor emotional regulation. Compulsive buyers are more likely to shop when experiencing negative emotions such as loneliness, anger, depression, or irritability. In this case, compulsive shopping happens as an attempt to tamp down emotional problems. 

Childhood trauma may also be an early predictor of adulthood compulsive buying. Different forms of childhood trauma have shown statistically significant correlations with CBD, with emotional abuse and witnessing violence emerging as the topmost factors.

Compulsive buying disorder causes

What are the patterns of Compulsive buying disorder?

CBD is not listed as a diagnosable condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition (DSM-5). However, studies have identified certain characteristics that CBD possesses and are similarly seen in other addictive disorders. The patterns of compulsive buying disorder are listed below. 

  • Anticipation: In this stage, the compulsive buyer starts to develop thoughts and urges toward a possible item to buy or with the act of shopping itself.
  • Preparation: A person spends a significant amount of time researching items that are on sale or newly-opened shops during this phase. This can also involve making decisions on what to wear or which credit cards to use during the shopping spree.
  • Shopping: The actual shopping happens either in person or online. The compulsive shopper experiences an intense excitement over the activity and they get a rush or high from it.
  • Spending: The completion of the phase ends when several items are purchased. The person may feel disappointed with themselves because of how much they spent to feed their compulsion. 

Other known patterns of compulsive buying disorder include:

  1. Impulse purchase
  2. Buyers high
  3. Shopping to dampen unpleasant emotions
  4. Guilt and remorse
  5. The pain of paying

What are the characteristics of Compulsive buying disorder?

CBD has certain distinct features compared to other behavioral issues. The characteristics of compulsive buying disorder are listed below. 

  • Poorly managed urges to buy things: Compulsive buying disorder is experienced as an overpowering urge to purchase things or buy unnecessary goods that often go unused. This behavior causes distress and interference in social functioning.
  • Frequent preoccupation with buying: A compulsive buyer develops thoughts and preoccupations with shopping or planning purchases. This also involves zoning out during conversations due to thoughts of shopping and may happen even when the person recognizes that the behavior is having adverse consequences in their life.
  • Financial problems due to unhealthy shopping habits: Compulsive shopping disorder can result in financial difficulties, including indebtedness or bankruptcy as one engages in frequent shopping sprees. A person with the disorder often maxes out their credit cards because of spending beyond what they can afford.
  • Negative effects on one’s family and occupational life: CBD can cause problems at work and at home. Compulsive buying can disrupt family finances and may negatively impact relationships with family members as a person tries to hide their purchases from loved ones out of guilt. Someone with the disorder may also borrow money from family members to fuel their obsession without the ability to make payments. Excessive preoccupation with shopping or shopping during work breaks may also decrease productivity in the workplace and may result in poor work performance.
  • Spending significant time thinking about shopping: An individual with CBD may spend large amounts of time researching and window shopping before making purchases. These behaviors involving shopping are time-consuming and may lead to lesser time spent on non-shopping activities once enjoyed.

Other characteristics of compulsive buying disorder include:

  1. Comorbid psychiatric disorders
  2. Higher levels of novelty seeking
  3. Harm avoidance
  4. Moderate levels of reward dependence
  5. Materialistic values

What are the signs and symptoms of Compulsive buying disorder?

There are strong indicators to watch out for when CBD is being suspected. The signs and symptoms of compulsive buying disorder are listed below.

  • Shopping as an emotional distraction: An individual may engage in compulsive shopping to feel better and cope with unpleasant emotions such as stress, feelings of agitation, anxiety, or depression. Someone with CBD may take out their emotions or release them by purchasing material stuff.
  • Maxing out credit cards even with existing card debt: A compulsive buyer may use credit for everyday purchases. When things get out of hand, they may max out their credit cards without being able to pay previous balances and may also consider opening up a new credit card even with existing debt.
  • Buying unnecessary items that go almost entirely unused: A person with CBD may make useless purchases during a compulsive shopping spree. These items may go completely unused or end up being unopened as the person continues the cycle of buying.
  • Making more purchases than originally intended: A compulsive buyer often plans their shopping trips and may intend to only buy a few items at first, but will end up buying more products than they intended.
  • Hiding purchased items from family or friends: An individual may hide purchased items from family members or friends as an attempt to downplay how much they spent or how many items they bought. This is a sign that the person is aware that their purchases are potentially damaging, but they cannot help themselves. 

Other signs and symptoms of CBD include:

  1. Obsessive thoughts about shopping or having a specific product
  2. Feelings of guilt or regret after a big purchase
  3. Seeking a psychological rush or temporary euphoria through shopping
  4. Inability to repay debts and gain control over finances
  5. Having repeated failed attempts to curb compulsive shopping

How to overcome Compulsive buying disorder

Several self-help strategies can be beneficial for a person struggling with CBD. The most helpful ways to overcome compulsive buying disorder are listed below. 

  • Admit that there is a problem to be solved: As with any form of disorder, the first step to fixing the problem is recognizing there is one. It may sound simple, but moving past denial means that you are beginning to let go of the habit and are willing to seek out assistance.
  • Keep track of expenses and stick to a budget: Keeping track of expenses for a week or a month is crucial in making someone work within only their budget. Tracking monthly expenses is also helpful in noticing some spending patterns that need changing to gain better control of one’s finances.
  • Put the credit cards away and pay off the debt: Leave your cards at home and work on paying off the debt. It is also helpful to remove your credit card info from websites where their numbers may be stored. However, if you still think that having an open card might make you tempted, you can cancel it and commit to a plan to pay down your debt.
  • Stick to the shopping list: Creating a shopping list can help someone control their urges to buy unnecessary items and being able to stick to the plan can give them a sense of accomplishment. An organized shopping list also helps save a person’s time and money.
  • Pick up a new hobby: It is important for a compulsive buyer who once lost interest in previously enjoyed activities to rediscover or pick up new hobbies to develop healthier coping strategies when faced with strong urges to shop. This way, they do not turn to shopping when experiencing urges but may opt for healthier activities to distract themselves instead.
  • Avoid triggers: It is important to identify what triggers the need to shop or overspend and avoid temptations by keeping triggers at bay. For instance, avoid going to the mall or opening online shopping sites when experiencing negative emotions that lend themselves to OCD shopping.
  • Avoid online shopping sites and shopping channels:  An individual can block certain online marketplaces to limit access to shopping sites. Avoiding TV shopping channels can also help one cut down on compulsive spending.
  • Attend a support group: Someone with CBD may benefit from attending a compulsive buying disorder support group such as Shopaholics Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous. By connecting to people with similar issues, one can have a solid support system during recovery. 

Other ways to manage compulsive buying disorder include:

  1. Shop with a friend who can hold you accountable. 
  2. Pay for products in cash only
  3. Focus on the long-term benefits of a canceled shopping trip
  4. Ask for support from family and friends during recovery
  5. Seek treatment from a doctor or a mental health professional

What are the risk factors for Compulsive buying disorder?

The disorder is influenced by a complex interplay of factors. The risk factors for compulsive buying disorder are listed below. 

  • Gender: Studies reveal that compulsive buying disorder tends to affect more women than men. Although gender differences may vary depending on which research one is reading, around 80-94% of individuals seeking treatment for compulsive shopping are women.
  • Higher levels of novelty seeking: Novelty seeking is a personality trait that reflects a strong interest in trying and experiencing something new. For compulsive buyers, searching for and owning new objects may satisfy their desire for novelty and give them the pleasurable experience obtained from aesthetically pleasing items bought in a store.
  • Neuroticism: Neurotic individuals, or those who are typically anxious, irritable, and depressive, are more likely to use shopping as a way to reduce negative emotions.
  • High levels of compulsivity: Compulsions are persistent and repetitive acts that are performed to find relief from negative emotions. The use of shopping to deal with or escape from distress and other difficult emotions among compulsive shoppers is very common.
  • A materialistic outlook: Someone with a high level of materialism may develop CBD and get their self-worth from the material possessions they own. These people may also attach importance to material goods rather than their accomplishments or character traits.
  • Approval-seeking: An approval-seeking person craves social approval or recognition and may look for validation through purchasing goods.
  • Low self-esteem: a characteristic commonly seen in people who are a shopaholic. Compulsive buyers tend to shop to improve feelings of low self-esteem and may seek material possessions to compensate for them.  

Other risk factors for compulsive buying disorder include:

  1. Harm avoidance
  2. Boredom proneness
  3. Consumer culture
  4. Easy access to credit cards
  5. Moderate levels of reward dependence

How do you treat Compulsive buying disorder?

Compulsive buying disorder can be treated by using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help compulsive shoppers identify and change destructive thoughts and behavior patterns that make them turn to shopping.

Cognitive behavioral treatment is also helpful in developing more positive coping strategies when experiencing strong urges to shop and overspend. And although the best possible treatment for the disorder is through CBT, another potential compulsive shopping treatment option is the use of medication. 

This is especially applicable in cases where compulsive shopping has roots in depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems.

Is Compulsive buying an addiction?

No, compulsive buying is not officially recognized as a behavioral addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), at least for now. Gambling disorder is the only diagnosable behavioral addiction listed in the psychiatry text. 

However, although compulsive buying disorder is not recognized as a formal diagnosis, it has real, serious repercussions and it follows the same pattern as substance addictions. For instance, impaired personal relationships are similarly seen as negative effects in both behavioral and substance-based addictions. 

Despite its highly controversial status in the world of mental health experts, shopping anxiety disorder is a concept that has long been embraced by the media and is undeniably a growing concern for shoppers and non-shoppers alike.

How is Compulsive buying disorder diagnosed?

Compulsive buying disorder is diagnosed by conducting face-to-face interviews that are aimed at exploring buying behaviors, emotional factors involved, and the degree of preoccupation with shopping and spending. 

It is worth noting, however, that the lack of formal diagnostic criteria for compulsive shopping is due to its non-recognition from DSM-5 as well as The American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a behavioral addiction and mental disorder, respectively.

woman with lots of shopping bag

What is the difference between compulsive buying and impulsive buying?

Compulsive and impulsive buying are two distinct behaviors that vary significantly when it comes to their causes, recurrence, severity, consequences, and associated feelings. For instance, compulsive buying can stem from an irresistible urge to shop to seek relief from feelings of distress while impulsive buying is caused by a temporary urge to purchase an item that was not originally included in the shopping list. 

Moreover, compulsive spending disorder involves the need to repeatedly engage in shopping sprees to re-experience the short-lived euphoria or psychological high that shopping can give and is often planned. Impulsive buying, on the other hand, occurs less frequently, only when coming across a good find that one finds too difficult to let go of without making a spur-of-the-moment decision to purchase it.

Between the two behavior patterns, impulsive buying is known to be more harmless, provided that the person sticks to their budget. Meanwhile, compulsive buyers are more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with shopping and have an increased risk of falling into a problematic pattern of buying and spending. 

Compulsive buying also has a greater potential to result in more serious, negative repercussions than impulsive buying. Some of its negative consequences include problems with interpersonal relationships as well as occupational and financial difficulties. 

Lastly, another major distinction between compulsive and impulsive buying is that the former is driven by negative emotions and the desire to seek relief from them, while impulsive buying is associated with positive emotions such as instant gratification and reward-seeking behavior.