The technical term for a shopping addiction is oniomania. The word comes from the roots onios, “for sale” and mania, “madness.” In psychiatric literature, this syndrome is also referred to as compulsive buying disorder (CB). A Psychiatric Times survey conducted in December, 2006 revealed that almost 6% of Americans report having this problem. Perhaps surprisingly, the percentages for CB were about equal for men and women (5.5% and 6% respectively).
Is it a true addiction? For those who use shopping as a relief from stress,anxiety, and depression, it certainly seems so. Just like other addictions, excessive shopping can lead to job loss and financial ruin. And there is no doubt that a compulsive shopping disorder can harm relationships and wreck families.
What it is and is not a shopping addiction
Shopping addiction isn’t simply buying things you need or searching out the best deal on some luxury item. It differs from other shopping habits in that those afflicted look at shopping as a way to escape other problems in their lives.
For the compulsive shopper, there is a cycle of tension that builds as they consider an item and then a release when it is purchased. This is similar to what a compulsive gambler feels when they place a significant bet. There is a sense of involvement that transports them out of their day-to-day problems. And just as the thrill for the gambler rests on betting and not primarily on winning, the shopping addict is in it for the process more than the purchase itself.
Medical understanding of shopping addiction
While CB is not currently a standalone diagnosis, it does fall under the description of an impulse control disorder. More attention is being paid to the problem and several studies have been done to find out the causes and suggest treatments for compulsive shopping. One such study found that self-described shopping addicts were able to improve their moods by shopping, and the behavior seemed to be a response to stress and anxiety. 1
There has even been an attempt (unsuccessful) to find a 2
The basis for treating compulsive shopping as an addiction is the self-reinforcing aspect. CB feels great during the act and it does help with depression. But then, after the problems are revealed (either financial or emotional) the guilt from excessive buying leads to more depression… which can lead to another round of CB activity. This cyclical spiral downward is the hallmark of addiction.
According to Lorrin M. Koran, MD, first author on a 2006 study of compulsive buying behavior in the United States:
"Compulsive shoppers are actively acquiring the items, but they don't care about them after they have them. Women will hang new clothes in the closet, yet never take them out of the bag and never take off the tags. Men will leave the CDs wrapped in plastic and never listen to them."
Earlier research showed that men tend to buy electronic gadgets, tools, books, and compact discs, while women tend to buy clothes, makeup, craft items, and objects for the home.
photo by Paul Szustka