Science says shopping addiction is real – and these are the signs

·4 min read
Unrecognizable woman carrying a lot of shopping bags.
Shopping addiction has been given a defined diagnosis. (Stock, Getty Images)

Plenty of us indulge in a payday treat or can't resist a browse whenever we see a "sale" sign.

Scientists from Flinders University in Australia have warned, however, shopping can be an addiction, with some people unable to resist spending.

Although excessive or uncontrolled buying has been recognised as a disorder for more than 100 years, shopping addiction had no set diagnosis.

After consulting with more than 138 experts from 35 countries, the Flinders scientists have defined the disorder as the "excessive purchasing of items without utilising them for their intended purposes", with many shopaholics having "diminished control".

Read more: MDMA shows promise as severe PTSD treatment

Another warning sign is "buying to regulate internal states", with shopaholics generally experiencing "positive emotions or relieving negative moods" when making a purchase.

This comes after psychiatrists from the Hannover Medical School in Germany urged it is time to recognise shopping addiction "as a mental health condition".

credit card payment service. Customer paying for order of cheese in grocery shop.Credit card payment service The customer pays to order cheese in the pharmacy.
Shopaholics may get a fleeting mood boost when making a purchase. (Stock, Getty Images)

"In over 20 years, since I started investigating excessive buying, there has been an absence of commonly-agreed diagnostic criteria," said lead author Professor Mike Kyrios.

"[This] has hampered the perceived seriousness of the problem, as well as research efforts and consequently the development of evidence-based treatments."

Read more: Hallucinogenic drug trialled as depression treatment

So-called compulsive buying-shopping disorder is a "prevailing condition" that affects around one in 20 (5%) people, varying according to "different cultural settings", the scientists wrote in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

While often trivialised, a shopping addiction is increasingly being linked to "distress" and "impairment" in an individual's life.

The World Health Organization lists an obsessive need to shop as an "other specified impulse control disorder", unlike gaming or gambling, which are considered to be "disorders due to addictive behaviour".

Watch: Recovering shopaholic opens up

The Flinders-led team worked to create a "diagnostic criteria" for shopping addiction via the so-called Delphi technique, "a well-established approach to answering a research question through the identification of a consensus view across subject experts".

"This helped us to developed diagnostic criteria featuring large agreement among experts in the field, and is an important milestone to better understand and treat this behaviour," said co-author Dr Dan Fassnacht.

The Flinders scientists have defined compulsive buying-shopping disorder as the "persistent and recurrent experience" of "intrusive" and "irresistible" urges when it comes to making a purchase.

Diminished control, "excessive purchasing of items without utilising them" and using shopping to "regulate internal states" were also flagged.

Read more: Working 55 hours a week causes 745,000 deaths a year worldwide

While an individual's mood may be temporarily boosted when shopping, the aftermath can have "negative consequences and impairment in important areas of functioning".

Shopaholics may then endure "emotional and cognitive symptoms" after making the purchase.

"Clients who show excessive buying behaviour commonly have difficulties in regulating their emotions, so buying or shopping is then used to feel better," according to the scientists. 

"Paradoxically, if someone with compulsive buying-shopping disorder goes on a shopping trip, this will briefly improve their negative feelings, but will soon lead to strong feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment."

Despite the negative emotions shopaholics may go on to endure, many "maintain or escalate" their "dysfunctional behaviour".

By giving shopping addiction a diagnosis, the scientists hope they can better help people who are unable to control their spending.

"Now for the first time, we can start examining compulsive buying-shopping disorder more precisely which should help us the improve our treatments for this disabling condition," said co-author Dr Kathina Ali.

Obsessive spenders may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy or self-help books. Financial counselling could also help those with substantial debt.

When it comes to medication, studies have thrown up mixed results. Some suggest antidepressants could "curb" spending, while others found the drugs are no more effective than a placebo.

Psychiatrist Dr Donald Black from the University of Iowa Dr Black previously recommended obsessive spenders first admit they have a problem.

They should then throw their credit cards away and only go shopping with someone else, who can "curb the tendency to overspend".

Dr Black also advises shopaholics find "meaningful ways to spend their leisure time other than shopping".

Watch: Lockdown shopaholic turns delivery boxes into cars for her cat