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Shopping addiction symptoms, causes, and effects

Reading time: 9 mins
woman holding credit card in front of a laptop with shopping bags on both sides

Shopping addiction is a type of addiction where a person has a strong urge to keep buying, even though they have no finances to support their purchases. Also known as compulsive buying disorder and oniomania, shopping addiction can cause negative emotions when a person is unable to make a purchase. Persons with this problem also feel guilt and shame for their behavior but are unable to stop it. 

Various causes can contribute to shopping addiction, ranging from mental health problems to low self-esteem. Shopping addiction has a lot in common with other behavioral addictions, such as sex addiction. 

Unfortunately, this type of addiction is poorly studied. More studies are necessary to uncover all the mechanisms that lead to shopping addiction and define new treatment options. 

Treating shopping addiction is tricky but achievable.

What is shopping addiction?

Shopping addiction is defined as a compulsion to spend money on making purchases, despite harmful consequences such as financial problems. A person addicted to shopping often buys things they don’t want or need. 

Compulsive buying disorder was first described in the early 20th century when it was described as compulsive buying that leads to senseless debts with constant payment delays. Shopping addiction, as a type of behavioral addiction, is indicated by a lack of impulse control, which propels the person to act on its urges to buy, even if they are attempting to stop.

The prevalence of shopping addiction is around 5.8%, according to a 2006 comparative study on the Estimated prevalence of compulsive buying behavior in the United States published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

At the same time, between 80% and 95% of persons with a shopping addiction are females, a 2007 review of compulsive buying disorder from World Psychiatry suggests. The prevalence of this addiction is higher in developed countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom than in developing nations. Interestingly, shopping addiction is one of the most socially acceptable forms of addiction due to widespread consumerism.

What are the symptoms of shopping addiction?

Symptoms of shopping addiction are primarily psychological and behavioral or social. Unlike other behavioral addictions, this problem doesn’t cause physical symptoms such as a change in weight, skin problems, heart conditions, and other health concerns.

The most common psychological symptoms of shopping addiction include:

  • Worsened current mental health problems
  • Becoming agitated or angry when other people mention the shopping problem
  • Anxiety and irritability when not shopping 
  • Making purchases just to feel happy, euphoric, and satisfied or to cope with stress, depression
  • Building tolerance i.e. gradually worsening shopping habits to experience the same pleasurable effects
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on work or school
  • Losing control of shopping behavior
  • Feeling guilty after shopping, then making purchases to stop feeling guilty
  • Low self-esteem 

On the other hand, the most common social or behavioral symptoms of shopping addiction are:

  • Spending a lot of time shopping (in person or online)
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities once enjoyed in favor of shopping
  • Shopping for products or items that aren’t necessary and wanted due to overwhelming compulsion to do so
  • Inability to change shopping habits despite harmful consequences, all attempts to stop end up in failure
  • Social isolation and withdrawal from friends and family
  • Denying the existence of a shopping-related problem to oneself and others
  • Relationship problems due to excessive shopping
  • Exceeding the set budget for shopping
  • Trying to hide shopping habits from friends and family e.g. hiding purchased items
  • Continuing shopping even when in debt and have no money
  • Avoiding paying bills to shop
  • Taking money from other people to shop
  • Obsess over purchases on a daily or weekly basis
  • Engage in risky behaviors such as stealing

What are the causes of shopping addiction?

Causes of shopping addiction can be associated with developmental, cultural, and neurobiological influences. A 2007 review by Donald W Black from World Psychiatry reports that the neurological background of shopping addiction could be linked to impaired neurotransmission, especially in opioid, dopaminergic, and serotonergic systems. 

The most common causes of shopping addiction are listed below:

  • Consumerism and frequent exposure to advertising 
  • Easy access to physical and online stores 
  • Neuroticism, susceptibility to negative moods
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Presence of other problems such as eating disorders, substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders such as depression, and personality disorders

What are the effects of shopping addiction?

Woman in red jacket and black hat walking in front of a store

Effects of shopping addiction can be short-term and long-term. They may vary from one person to another primarily because this type of addiction affects people differently.  

Short-term effects of shopping addiction include:

  • Feeling excited and happy after making a purchase
  • Anxiety and irritability when not shopping 
  • Thrill when planning or completing a purchase 
  • Guilt and shame 
  • Strained family relationships 

Long-term effects of shopping addiction include:

  • Financial problems that may escalate to bankruptcy
  • Legal problems due to engaging in risky behaviors such as shoplifting and fraud
  • Ending close relationships (i.e. divorce) and ceasing contact with family
  • Developing a hoarding disorder

What are the treatments for shopping addiction?

Treatments for shopping addiction primarily focus on adopting positive shopping habits and managing underlying problems that led to the shopping addiction. Shopping addiction can be tricky to manage because buying things is a normal part of life. Every person has to purchase something at one point or another. For that reason, a person with a shopping addiction can’t simply cease exposure to the source of addictive behavior. 

Treatments for shopping addiction are listed below:

  • Individual counseling: one-on-one sessions with a therapist or counselor to discuss mental health and triggers that contributed to this addiction.
  • Group counseling: therapy sessions held in a group setting where members share experiences and support one another. According to a 2016 study by Hague et al., published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, group counseling appears to be the most effective treatment option for shopping addiction.
  • Behavioral therapy: during the treatment for shopping addiction, the therapist chooses the most suitable approach in terms of therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common type of therapy and the one that is studied in this aspect. A 2017 study by Granero et al., from European Psychiatry confirms the potential of CBT in the treatment of shopping addiction but also emphasizes the importance of further research on this subject. The main objective of CBT here is to help a person with shopping addiction develop impulse control and learn to identify triggers. They also learn to adopt healthier coping skills, replace negative behaviors and thoughts with more positive examples.
  • Financial counseling: a major part of shopping addiction is financial burden and debt. During the shopping addiction, a patient also receives financial counseling and education in order to handle their finances in a healthier manner.

How to overcome shopping addiction?

To overcome shopping addiction, a person needs a strong support system from family and friends. At the same time, they also need self-help practices and coping strategies. For example, finding a new hobby can be helpful. 

Most people with shopping addiction start making purchases to cope with stress and other problems. The goal is to find a replacement for shopping and do a hobby that will promote relaxation and help a person overcome addictive behavior. Yoga and meditation are nice hobbies to try for this purpose.

People need to buy certain items to function normally, including food and clothes. To overcome their problem, persons with shopping addiction need to make lists of items they need and stick to them i.e. avoid buying anything that’s not on the list. Going grocery shopping with someone else helps a person stay on the right track.

Credit and debit cards often make people think they’re not spending actual money until they see the balance on their bank account statements. One way to control shopping addiction is to use cash only and avoid cards.

Persons who are addicted to online shopping may want to unsubscribe and block platforms and apps they use for shopping. While these self-care methods can help increase the chance of successful recovery, keep in mind that they are not replacements for a well-structured treatment that involves therapy.

What are the different types of shopping addiction?

woman lying on a sofa with legs up and shoes around her

The most common shopping addiction types are:

  • Compulsive shopaholics: the type of shopping addiction characterized by making purchases primarily to manage emotional distress.
  • Bulimic shoppers: the problem wherein a person is caught in a vicious cycle of buying products and returning them.
  • Trophy shopaholics: the type of shopping addiction wherein a person is focused primarily on buying the perfect item.
  • Flashy shopaholics: indicated by being obsessed with spending a lot of money on expensive items with the main intention to establish the image of being a “big spender”.
  • Bargain hunters: a form of shopping addiction wherein a person keeps buying things they don’t need or want only because those items are discounted or on sale. The thrill of getting a good deal is what drives this type of shopping addiction.
  • Collectors: shopping problem wherein a person is focused only on collectibles and buying multiple versions of the same item in different colors or sizes. The thrill of collecting fuels addiction here.

Are there shopping addiction drug options?

Yes, drug options for shopping addiction are available in the presence of comorbidities such as mental health disorders. Many persons with shopping addiction also have anxiety or depression, which is why their treatment may include medications that manage these mental illnesses. 

At this point, there is no specific medication for shopping addiction, but options may include medications formulated to manage other problems, usually depression.

Although a lot more research is necessary on this subject, drug options for shopping addiction may include:

  • Citalopram (Celexa), an antidepressant
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro, Cipralex), an antidepressant
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox, Fevarin), an antidepressant
  • Memantine, used to slow the progression of moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s disease

What are the symptoms of shopping addiction withdrawal?

Shopping addiction withdrawal symptoms are similar to those associated with behavioral addictions and substance use disorders. The duration and severity of withdrawal symptoms depend on the intensity of addiction, compulsive shopping habits, presence of other mental health problems, and other factors. The symptoms of shopping addiction withdrawal may include:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Sleep-related problems such as insomnia 
  • Anxiety
  • Headache 
  • Strong cravings to make purchases
  • Upset stomach or diarrhea
  • Physical weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Heart racing or palpitations
  • Muscle aches and cramps
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever or chills

What are the symptoms of shopping addiction dependence?

woman on a busy street holding shopping bags over her shoulder

Symptoms of shopping addiction dependence are mainly observed through a strong urge to make purchases. First, it’s important to understand that addiction and dependence aren’t the same thing. 

The term dependence is usually associated with substance use disorders and refers to adaptations resulting in withdrawal symptoms when drugs are discontinued, according to a 2021 paper by Szalavitz et al., from the Annals of Medicine. While dependence isn’t necessarily an addiction, it can lead to it. 

In terms of shopping addiction, symptoms of shopping dependence may include:

  • Restlessness, anxiety, and irritability when unable to shop
  • Happiness, excitement, and euphoria after shopping
  • Using shopping to deal with stress, anxiety, and other negative feelings and emotions
  • Building “tolerance” to shopping i.e. increasing purchases to feel pleasure

When is shopping addiction counseling necessary?

Counseling for shopping addiction is necessary when a person develops risky purchasing habits. The exact time when shopping addiction counseling is necessary varies from one person to another. 

Counseling is the right course of action when a person stops buying more items in order to feel better. They usually develop financial problems, get themselves into debts, and borrow money in order to continue making regular purchases for things they may not even want or need.

Besides the very beginning of the problematic shopping behaviors, counseling is also necessary for persons who have an addiction to shopping as a part of the treatment process.

According to a 2015 study on compulsive buying from the American Journal on Addictions, shopping addiction counseling is effective, especially in group sessions.

What is the difference between compulsive and impulsive shopping?

The difference between compulsive and impulsive shopping lies in the internal motivation i.e. the reason for making a purchase. Impulsive buying is a more common behavior and refers to purchases we make without any deliberation i.e. a person buys something without thinking about it. 

In other words, impulsive shopping is a powerful, sudden urge to buy something immediately. It happens when the desire to purchase something is a lot stronger than a person’s ability to resist, a chapter on impulsive and compulsive buying written by Ronald J Faber for the Wiley International Encyclopedia of Marketing explains. 

On the flip side, compulsive shopping is a psychological disorder indicated by an uncontrollable urge to buy something. Failure to act on this urge induces tension that a person can get rid of only by purchasing a specific item or product. 

Compulsive shopping behavior is usually triggered by negative feelings or events and may lead to extreme consequences. Many people who buy something compulsively don’t even use those items, which suggests this behavior is mainly about short-term relief than about the desire to own a certain item/product.

Yet another compulsive vs. impulsive shopping aspect to bear in mind is that while impulsive buying happens at the moment due to an external trigger (e.g. seeing the desired product in the store), compulsive shopping is usually a planned experience. The trigger is internal primarily because it serves as an escape from troubling thoughts or feelings.

What is the psychological impact of shopping addiction?

The psychological impact of shopping addiction can be short- and long-term. The short-term psychological effects of shopping addiction involve the feeling of pleasure and other positive emotions upon purchasing something. Many people feel happier after buying something they wanted. 

That being said, these feelings are often mixed with negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety. These negative feelings propel a person to purchase something again and the cycle continues. For that reason, this problem is a form of behavioral or psychological addiction and has similarities with sex addiction, according to a 2016 study on the clinical comparison of compulsive buying behavior with other behavioral addictions from the Frontiers in Psychology.

The long-term psychological effects of shopping addiction are even more severe and complex. As a person experiences financial troubles due to shopping addiction, they may feel overwhelmed with debt. Being overwhelmed intensifies the feelings of guilt and anxiety. Additionally, some people with a shopping addiction may develop secondary hoarding disorders. In other words, shopping addiction can aggravate the psychological health and wellbeing of an individual. 

A 2011 article about a neurological study of compulsive buying behavior from the Journal of Consumer Policy performed MRI on brains of persons with compulsive shopping and healthy buyers and found that the shopping problem changes activity in certain brain areas. More precisely, shopping addiction has a major impact on the brain region that regulates decision-making. 

This may explain why persons with shopping addiction can’t resist the urge to shop and buy things to escape from their feelings. It also contributes to the fact that people with a shopping addiction may not know the distinction between want and need.

To sum up, shopping addiction harms the psychological health and wellbeing of an individual. It worsens their mental health and may further contribute to anxiety and depression.