For some, going to the mall with their friends and splurging on beautiful items is thrilling. Some go as far as calling it therapeutic or labeling the experience “retail therapy.” It feels good to buy a new cardigan or designer handbag and imagine yourself wearing it for a special occasion. Shopping can be a boost for the spirits for some individuals, but for others, it becomes an addiction that can lead to financial ruin both for the individual and the family.
“Everyone wants a slice of the American pie …a nice outfit, a nice car, a nice home. So people feel impatient or entitled to live the life of the rich and famous,” Terrence Shulman, the founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, warns.
“Shopaholics” are individuals whose shopping habits are excessive and born of a lack of control over one’s impulses, explains Dr. Donal Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine. Much like other addicts who indulge in destructive behavior patterns, such as alcoholism, gambling, and overeating, shopaholics are convinced that if they “shop ‘till they drop,” they will feel better, happier, when, in fact, their compulsive spending generally leaves them feeling worse.
It remains unclear what precisely causes addictive behaviors. Some of the latest studies suggest that 10 to 15 percent of addicts may carry a genetic predisposition to addiction, says Dr. Rugh Engs, a professor of health sciences at Indiana University. These individuals’ DNA coupled with an environment in which the compulsion is triggered leaves them particularly susceptible to alcoholism drug abuse, gambling or shopping.
Although we can’t fully identify the precise cause of addiction, the reasons behind it are better understood. “Individuals will get some kind of high from an addictive behavior like shopping,” says Engs. “Meaning that endorphins and dopamine, naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain, get switched on, and the person feels good, and if it feels good they are more likely to do it — it’s reinforced.” This high paired with a person feeling depressed, lonely and angry, and looking to replace or numb these feelings is a prescription for addiction. Spending will not raise shaky self-esteem, heal past hurts, erase regrets, or reduce stress. It often exacerbates these feelings because of the increased financial debt related to compulsive shopping.
How to Spot a Shopaholic
There are many overlapping characteristics among shopaholics and other addicts. “For instance, while alcoholics will hide their bottles,” says Engs “shopaholics will hide their purchases.” Here are a few observable signs to look for:
—Overspending: Often times a person will spend well above their income because shopaholics have difficulty laying out a budget and sticking within its parameters.
—Overbuying: Men and women with shopping addiction often have racks of clothes and accessories with the price tags still attached which have never been used. Shopaholics will go into a store with the intention of buying one or two items and return home loaded with bags and bags (they might go for one pair of shoes and come back with 10).
—Long Term Problem: A shopping addiction is more than just a once-a-year holiday spree; it is a continuous problem.
—Lying and Deceit: Shopaholics will hide their purchases or keep secret credit cards because although they are in denial about their addiction, they fear criticism from their loved ones.
—Vicious Cycle: Some people will return their purchases out of guilt but the guilt can trigger another shopping spree, so it becomes a vicious circle that feeds on itself. In these cases debt may not be an issue but a problem still exists.
—Impacts Personal Relationships: Because the person spends time away from home to shop, conceals debt with deception, and begins to isolate him/herself, both physically and emotionally, from others as the person becomes preoccupied with their compulsion, personal relationships become strained. They may even dissolve altogether.
—Treatment Options for Shopping Addiction
If you or a family member is addicted to shopping, seek professional help. Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first, and most important, step. You can then begin to research 12 step programs, such as Debtors Anonymous, that are available in most communities to provide ongoing support. These groups will guide you on how to tackle this addiction, advising you how and when to cut the credit cards, limit access to checkbooks, have a shopping buddy accompany you.
It’s also important to receive credit counseling that will help a person craft a financial plan to reduce debt as quickly and systametically as possible. Treating shopping addiction with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) along with the credit and debt counseling have been the most effective approach, although sometimes medications that treat underlying conditions—such as depression—can also prove helpful. Along the way, therapists will help you find a more healthy and meaningful substitute for shopping.
Small Tips to Future Shopping Binges:
— Pay cash only for purchases
— Use a shopping list and stick to it
— Shop with a friend or spouse
— Destroy all but one credit card, meant for emergency use only
— Leave your wallet at home when going “window shopping”
— Avoid TV infomercials and shopping channels
— Take a walk or exercise when the urge to shop comes on
Dr. Nafisa Sekandari is the co-founder of Mental Health 4 Muslims. She is a licensed therapist in both California and Arizona. Along with running her private practice, Dr. Sekandari is also a published author and lecturer. For more information about her or to contact her for her services please visit: http://drsekandari.com and http://drsekandari.com/drsekandariblog/.
Hosai Mojaddidi is the co-founder of MH4M (Mental Health 4 Muslims). She is also the co-host of “Insights: Muslim Women Unscripted” which airs live every Monday from 5-6 PM on www.onelegacyradio.com. You can reach her at Hosai@mentalhealth4muslims.com.
(Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab)