Good News: Compulsive Buying Is A Treatable Illness

Can’t stop shopping? You’re not alone. According to the L.A. Times, one in twenty Americans buy compulsively, a destructive yet treatable economy-propping impulse control disorder.

If those seeking treatment are any gauge, compulsive shopping is an overwhelmingly female condition. Some 80% of those who come forward, say experts, are women. Koran says there’s every reason to believe that men are just as likely to buy compulsively. But “men don’t come for help,” he says.

Gender differences are very real, however, in the tastes and habits of compulsive shoppers. Women, say those who treat the condition, overwhelmingly buy clothes, jewelry, makeup and gifts for other people — largely objects of self-adornment they imagine will enhance their image in the eyes of others. Though many male compulsive shoppers are clotheshorses, experts say they are more commonly “collectors” of things — electronic gadgets, CDs, watches, pens, books, cars. Men, says Koran, tend to have impulse-control problems around shopping when they feel agitated, angry, elated. Depression and boredom are more often the moods that send women to market.

For both, purchases bring a rush of relief from uncomfortable feelings: Patients frequently describe a “rush” of arousal and a release from the unpleasant feelings that generally build in the hours and days before a shopping expedition, says Koran. Indeed, brain-imaging studies have shown that even in normal subjects, anticipating a purchase prompts activity in many of the same pleasure-seeking circuits that are activated when addicts succeed in finding a “fix.”

But disinterest, guilt and remorse tend to set in quickly. Their purchases are often stowed in the back of a closet or in a basement, their price tags never removed. The resulting ill feeling begins building again, and a compulsive shopper will frequently feel the need for another shopping fix. The cycle continues.

Perversely, our little non-recession could actually encourage compulsive buyers to binge shop as a way to distract from other financial woes.

Stanford and UCLA both have programs to treat binge shoppers, and there are 400 Debtors Anonymous chapters nationwide. Treatment encourages patients to ask six questions that all good shoppers should consider before buying:

  • Why am I here?
  • How do I feel?
  • Do I need this?
  • What if I wait?
  • How will I pay for it?
  • Where will I put it?

Shopping’s dark side: The compulsive buyer [L.A. Times]
(Photo: Getty)