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Yes, Shopping Can Be Addictive

Medical Center of Aurora July 11, 2017

If you can’t pass up a good deal, Prime Day will be hard to resist. Even more so for the nearly six percent of Americans affected by compulsive buying disorder or, more widely known as, a shopping addiction.

Today is like Christmas in July for online shoppers (and Amazon Prime members) around the world, as prices will be slashed for a number of ticket items for just more than 24 hours. But this retail therapy can be damaging to some people with the compulsion to buy, buy, buy.

Dr. Jamie Sorenson, adult medical director and psychiatrist at HealthONE’s The Medical Center of Aurora, an HCA Healthcare affiliate, believes this phenomenon should be considered a behavioral addiction, rather than a shopping compulsion.

“People argue whether this should be recognized as an impulse control disorder or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. They don’t know how to categorize it,” she said. “I would call it a behavioral addiction – something that turns on the reward pathways in your brain.”
“You learn that you feel good when you buy things, and then you go back to that behavior because you’re trying to get that feeling again,” she added.

What does this feel like for someone who has this behavioral addiction?

It feels like a strong desire to go out and purchase something, despite knowing that it’s not necessarily good for them. They might realize that they’re in debt but then drive by a store and all they can think about are those cute shoes that they have to go in and buy. It’s the only way to alleviate this tense, painful anxiety that they’re experiencing. And usually, they’ll go in and buy large quantities of something. They’ll feel better once they buy it – the anxiety and distress goes away – so that makes the behavior even more rewarding and reinforcing because when they make that purchase, all of their tension is released.  So, someone with a shopping addiction would experience an extreme level of distress.
How is compulsive buying disorder different from someone who just loves to shop?

The problem is your shopping habits end up turning into a negative because it results in debt; your house being overwhelmingly filled, among other adverse effects. It’s how a computer gets wired or programmed. Your brain has gone through the process so many times, and once the reward pathway gets turned on over and over again, it changes the decision-making part of your brain. Reward pathways are like a series of light bulbs in your brain that go off when you do something pleasurable. That could be eating sugar, buying something, having sex, gambling, etc. It’s really interesting how your behaviors can actually change how your brain is wired. A lot of people who have an addiction or obsessive behaviors can alternate them between food, shopping, sex, drugs – they can be traded out for another.

What advice would you give someone struggling with a shopping addiction?

Many psychiatric treatments would recommend mindfulness – to live in the present moment and reflect on what’s happening now. So, if someone is experiencing intense anxiety in the moment and they go out and buy something, they’re probably experiencing that anxiety for a reason other than buying a new pair of shoes. Those mindfulness skills will help them reflect on why exactly they are experiencing that anxiety and tension in the first place.

Why might someone turn to retail therapy anyway?

It’s an American lifestyle, or a culturally appropriate way, to pamper ourselves. But for some people, it turns into a level of distress. The same way that some people can have a drink of alcohol in certain situations and other people can’t. Compulsive behaviors like shopping are extremely similar to other addictions like food and sex.

What are the treatment options?

Therapy is one option. One of the best outcomes for therapy is finding a therapist that you trust. Alternative therapy like acupuncture also can be helpful. Finally, be mindful, slow down and focus on all of the small elements of the now. It’s a very calming technique that will help keep you in the present.


Dr. Jamie Sorenson is a licensed psychiatrist at The Medical Center of Aurora in Aurora, Colo.  The Medical Center of Aurora is part of a network of hospitals in the HealthONE system, an affiliate of HCA Healthcare.

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