You love a bargain. You can spend hours browsing (online and IRL). You thrive on the thrill of the hunt for the perfect gift, outfit, gadget or tchotchke. But when does shopping turn from a pleasurable and innocuous activity into something that may be getting out of control? It’s often not easy to tell when a line is being crossed.
As with other types of addiction and compulsive behavior, a shopping problem may be reaching the realm of the addictive when it is significantly interfering with your life and is tied to a feeling of reward ,or a “high,” says Neelam Chadha, a psychologist with Central Psychological, Inc., in Edmonton, Canada. People could use shopping as an escape,” something that’s similar to many people with addiction. In addition, someone with a shopping addiction may experience cravings, although not to the degree of a substance addiction (drugs and alcohol), which typically involves more intense cravings and physical withdrawal symptoms, Chadha notes.
In addition to the hallmarks mentioned above, here are four more signs that your passion for shopping may actually be edging into addiction, or what’s often called compulsive buying behavior:
- Your significant other has called you on it.
When people in your life point out your compulsive shopping habits to you, that’s a good indication that you have a problem, says Kimber Shelton, PhD, a psychologist based in Duncanville, Texas. They may bring up, more than once, the money you spend on things you don’t really need, or the hours you spend browsing online, or the fact that the Amex bill never seems to get any smaller. You may even agree that you’ll stop or lessen the time and/or money you spend, only to return to compulsive buying. In this way, your shopping habits can begin to tear down your relationships with others.
- When you’re angry, sad or depressed your first instinct is to log online or drive to the mall.
As noted above, “although shopping is a fun and enjoyable activity, it’s likely a problem if you feel ‘high’ or euphoric or get an adrenaline rush after doing it,” says Dr. Shelton. You may notice, too, that once the rush passes, you feel low — maybe even lower than before you shopped. The spike in mood results from the brain releasing feel-good chemicals called endorphins and dopamine, and over time you could find that you seek out this feeling (consciously or not) over and over, effectively training your brain to chase this rush.
- You’ve got a closet of … well, you’re not exactly sure what’s in there, since you can barely open the door.
If you’re easily tempted to buy things you don’t need or find you have multiple purchases of the same or very similar items, shopping is problematic, Shelton notes. The frequent corollary to this compulsive habit is often that in regularly acquiring unnecessary things compulsive shoppers find themselves spending more than they think or planned. “If you don’t like what you see when you look at your bank account, you may have instant clarity that shopping is a problem,” she adds.
- You’re no stranger to buyer’s remorse.
Feeling regret, shame or guilt after a buying binge may also signal it’s time to back off, says Lisa Bahar, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Dana Point, California. “Another sign is if you’re hiding purchases from family members and lack awareness when shopping, dissociating in the process.”
Dealing with a Shopping Addiction
So what are some first steps you can take to wean yourself from the urge to spending hours and hours browsing and/or buying? “Although it is easy to recognize when shopping has gotten out of control, it’s not always as easy to end the addiction,” says Shelton, so recognize that like any compulsive behavior, it may take some time and help — a psychotherapist can be a great resource — to break a long-standing or very serious spending problem.
- Acknowledge that shopping is a problem for you and elicit support from others. “When we make a verbal proclamation and feel supported by others, changes happen more easily,” says Shelton.
- Set a spending limit and get rid of credit cards, or keep just one — only to be used in emergencies. Carry only the amount of cash you need so that you won’t be tempted to make impulse purchases.
- If you know or suspect that shopping fills an emotional void for you, it’s worth spending more time to determine what you’re trying to feel and/or avoid feeling: depression, anxiety, rejection, disappointment, loneliness, boredom? “If you can identify your emotional needs, you can then work to address these needs and find ways to have them successfully met,” says Shelton.