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Can shopping be addictive?

December 2018

Woman carrying wrapped presents
Shopping can become an addiction

Don’t you love this time of year...all the shops are filled with tempting new treats and gift ideas; they are warm with a buzz of excitement and lovely Christmas music playing in the background.

What’s not to like?! But for some of us, Christmas is an especially dangerous time. When we come home laden with parcels, someone might well joke we are shopaholics...but actually this is a medical condition that should not be treated lightly.

Today a shopping addiction, or shopaholism is not only recognised as real but also recognised as a medical condition at the same level as alcoholism, eating disorders and substance abuse. The actual medical term for people who have an uncontrollable and compulsive desire to shop is oniomania. This comes from the Greek word onios (for sale) and mania to cover the madness associated with a specific area.

Oniomania is growing in the UK and as more research is done into this, the problem has been categorised as coming in several different forms:

  • Bargain seekers who purchase items they really don’t need because they are on a special sale
  • Compulsive shopaholics who shop to cheer themselves up when they are unhappy or suffering emotional distress
  • Bulimic shoppers who have got into an uncontrollable habit of buying and then returning
  • Never quite right shoppers, who are never happy with their purchases and continue to look for the perfect item
  • Shopaholics who simply like to spend and be seen spending; and like to be accepted as a big spender.

It starts because acquiring something nice or something you feel you want comes into the same category as reward and after a purchase the brain can release endorphins and dopamine. Over time, for some people this can become addictive. Shopping can also help add control into the lives of people who are having day to day problems; deciding and making a purchase is a positive action with a successful result.

When shopping turns into compulsive buying is a grey area with few clear definitions; but once the problem has hold there are some clear signs. As so often with addiction, it is friends and relations who often spot the problem while the sufferer remains unwilling to accept their “habit” has turned into a damaging addiction.

Some signs that can indicate a real compulsive shopping problem include:

  • Going shopping as a reaction to being angry or depressed
  • Clearly purchasing items that are not really needed or wanted
  • Hiding purchases or lying about costs
  • Keeping unopened items at home
  • Admitting financial problems yet still regularly shopping for unnecessary items

Why there are excellent groups for alcoholism, gambling and drug abuse, at the moment there are few professional organisations dealing with oniomania. It can also come in so many stages that it can be hard to diagnose.

However, if you feel you might be suffering from this problem, or know of a friend who you believe has become a compulsive shopper, then help is available. If you have concern you may have this problem, then your local doctor will definitely be able to help here, and often antidepressants and other medications can start the road to recovery. But often a psychiatric report is needed as well to ensure the cause is properly identified and the right treatment recommended. Recognising the problem in a friend is far more tricky as, like any addiction, they may well not want to accept their addiction. All you can do here is speak to the person, or even to family and friends, and try and persuade the person to seek help.

The good side is that many of us will overspend at this time of year...the temptations out there are so great and how lovely it is to give family and friends beautiful gifts. But when overspending becomes a habit...then this is the time to seek out professional assistance. 

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