By: Gerri L. Elder
Mental health professionals are now debating whether or not compulsive shopping is a disorder and how to distinguish between an avid shopper or someone who occasionally goes overboard while shopping from a person who is out of control and needs mental health services.
Shopping is an American pastime. Products and services are marketed in every way possible and commercialism has crept into every facet of our everyday lives. We seem to be born, raised and conditioned to be consumers and to shop as often as we possibly can.
For many people, shopping can be soothing and bargain hunting a blast, but according to a report by the Los Angeles Times, for more than 1 in 20 people in the United States, shopping is a real problem.
The American Journal of Psychiatry published a study in the October 2006 issue that found that at some point in the lives of approximately 5.8 percent of Americans, compulsive shopping will become an issue causing shame, job losses, broken relationships and bankruptcy.
Compulsive buyers are generally troubled by impulses to shop, are prone to lose track of time while shopping and tend to be plagued by guilt after shopping binges. Many compulsive shoppers cause themselves devastating financial problems and end up filing bankruptcy to deal with the credit card debt that they have racked up.
As the U.S. economy continues to sink, many compulsive shoppers are seeking help to get their lives and finances under control. Mental health experts say that it is not a lack of willpower that causes compulsive shoppers to go on binges; it is an inability to control their impulses and desires or behaviors.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are challenged on how to label and treat people who shop compulsively. Many self-help groups, clinics and therapists specializing in the treatment of compulsive shoppers are popping up across the country and are filled with clients seeking help.
Some compulsive shoppers describe the emotional highs and lows they feel while shopping and afterward in terms of a physical addiction. They say that they feel physically addicted to the adrenaline rush they get from shopping and then feel the need to shop again to get over the emotional lows and feelings of guilt and failure when they realize they have done it again. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Treatment for compulsive shoppers can be complicated and similar to treating a compulsive eater who feels addicted to food. Since we all need to eat and shop for basic necessities to sustain our lives, finding a balance and recognizing when things are out of balance is necessary. Just as an eating compulsion results in negative health consequences, a compulsion for shopping can result in serious financial consequences and lead to bankruptcy.
Rising food and gas prices, coupled with the foreclosure epidemic sweeping the country, are currently causing many people a great deal of stress and causing them to cut back on all unnecessary spending. However, for a compulsive shopper, this stress can trigger even more binge shopping.
Sometimes called "retail therapy," these episodes of compulsive shopping can cause more financial problems leading to divorce, bankruptcy and a person being estranged from their family.
For many compulsive shoppers who are coming forward to address their problem, bankruptcy can offer a fresh start and a chance to get out from under the crushing debt they have accumulated.
Starting over with a clean slate may encourage reformed compulsive shoppers to avoid shopping binges and maintain control of their impulses. Maintaining control and keeping impulses in check can in turn help compulsive shoppers rebuild their finances and lead happier lives.