By Daniela Intili, MAPS, journalist and psychologist

Figures released by the Australian Consumers’ Association reveal that almost half of all Australian households are in debt. Shopping is fast becoming a national pastime and with it seems to be an increasing number of oniomania, or compulsive shopping, cases being reported. In fact, recent claims suggest up to one in 12 Australian shoppers are sufferers of the disorder.

Oniomania is the medical term used to described compulsive shopping. It’s usually a response to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, loneliness or anger.

When these feelings intensify, so to does the urge to splurge.

Retail therapy is a “pick me up”. Spending substitutes for an emotional void, providing a quick fix. But this temporary lift soon reverts back to feelings of guilt, anger and depression, taking the shopper back to square one, emotionally, but in more chronic debt. This in turn triggers another compulsion to shop, starting the vicious cycle all over again.

Suze Orman, psychologist and financial author of three consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including The Road to Wealth, says “our emotions influence up to 80 per cent of our financial decisions”.

Festive seasons or painful anniversaries can trigger a shopping binge, as emotions peak, while others may experience the compulsion all year round. As well as disrupting everyday life and causing emotional havoc, the disorder can lead to relationship breakdown and financial ruin.

Research findings

Professor Lorrin Koran, Director of the Psychiatry and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Clinic at Stanford University Medical Centre, described compulsive shopping as a behaviour that has “serious and unpleasant consequences, and one of public concern”.

In 2001, Koran was involved in one of the biggest studies on compulsive shopping. Preliminary findings from Koran’s research indicated some compulsive shoppers generated large credit-card debts. “Severe cases have been known to take out second mortgages on their homes, declare bankruptcy, and subsequently divorce.”

“People with a compulsive shopping disorder often can’t stop thinking about shopping and can’t control the impulse to purchase items, “ Koran said. “These items are often stored and not used. They are wanted at the time of purchase, but often not seen as useful or valued some short time after the purchase.”

Compulsive shoppers often hide items to prevent relatives or partners complaining about their shopping habits. Some even lie about purchases bought or the amount of money spent.

According to Koran, “More than 90 per cent of sufferers are women.” It’s uncertain why, but one theory is that men and women react differently to low serotonin levels. Men tend to become more aggressive and risk-taking, while women turn to behaviours such as binge eating or compulsive shopping.

For women, buying new clothes, shoes or cosmetics can become a way of increasing self-esteem or feeling more attractive.

Ruth Engs, author of Alcohol and Other Drugs and Professor of Applied Health Science at Indiana University, US, has been studying addictive behaviours for around 28 years. “Compulsive shopping is similar to other addictive behaviours and with some of the same characteristics as alcoholism, gambling and overeating,” she said.

“When shopaholics are feeling anxious, depressed or lonely, they go out and buy things ‘for a pick me up’. They can experience a thrill or high, just like a drug addict or alcoholic,” she said.

Engs believes this may be due to the stimulation of beta-endorphins in the brain, which are chemicals that make a person feel high.

“Reports suggest that if people continue to engage in the activity to achieve this feeling of well-being and euphoria, they may get into an addictive cycle. In doing so, they become physically addicted to their own brain chemicals, thus leading to continuation of the behaviour, even though it may have negative health or social consequences.”

Engs said there have been extreme cases where compulsive shoppers even experience “emotional black outs. They get home but they don’t remember having bought particular items.”

It’s not known why these ‘blackouts’ occur, but Engs believes it’s likely to be biochemical. “The same thing happens with gamblers, and of course alcoholism is the classic example, although in this instance it’s likely to be caused by the alcohol.”

She adds: “Addictive behaviours tend to congregate. That means, if you have a drug, alcohol, gambling problem or eating disorder, you could be at risk of developing a shopping addiction.”

Some psychological experts regard compulsive shopping to be more like shop lifting (kleptomania), rather than an addiction.

Kleptomania, or impulsive stealing, is a type of impulse control disorder. People with this disorder act on a certain impulse that is potentially harmful, such as pyromania or trichotillomania (hair pulling), but which they cannot resist. People with kleptomania usually don’t steal because they are financially deprived. They steal for the thrill of it.

So for the kleptomaniac, the act of shoplifting, for example, may invoke a degree of thrill or pleasure. Here, stress or tension triggers thoughts of shoplifting and the act of shoplifting lifts mood and arousal.

Spender types

However, not all big spenders are compulsive shoppers. There are three main types of spenders.

The first have poor money management skills. They get into significant financial trouble by overspending, over committing or deferring payments, but don’t have a compulsion.

The second type seeks material possessions. They enjoy buying new clothes or gadgets. This is to do with status, so it has a different motivation to compulsion.

The third group, who buy to deal with psychological feelings of depression, low self-esteem or inadequacy, meet the definition of oniomania. They have a compulsive urge or psychological need to repeatedly purchase items they don’t need.

The most common theory of compulsive shopping is that a link exists between compulsive shopping and clinical depression. Low serotonin levels found in depression are also associated with increased rates of impulsivity. For this reason, medications such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are regarded as beneficial in helping compulsive shoppers ease the urge.

Koran’s study at Stanford University trialled the SSRI citalopram, which is related to Prozac. Preliminary results of the first drug trial indicated that patients reported feeling less anxiety, less depression and less impulsiveness.

As well as dealing with more obvious factors such as eliminating credit cards, cognitive behavioural therapy, during which the shopper identifies thoughts and feelings that instigate the urge to shop, has been put forward as another form of viable treatment.

The aim is to challenge and replace compulsive thoughts and feelings with more appropriate thoughts and behaviours, including walking or meditation.

Helpful tips for compulsive shoppers

  • Cut up all your credit cards, except one for use in an emergency.
  • Avoid shopping when feeling stressed or down in the dumps.
  • If you get the urge to shop, go for a walk or to the gym. Not only is exercise a good distraction, it can help to reduce excess adrenaline and stress levels.
  • Write a list of the things you need to buy before you go shopping - and stick to the list.
  • If possible, identify a close friend or family member in whom you can confide and who can provide support at difficult times. Arrange to call this person whenever you feel an urge to shop so they can help you to deal with it.
  • When you do need to go shopping, consider taking this person with you so that they can help you to limit your purchases to only the things that you need.
  • Learn some ‘self-talk’ that you can use when you are feeling the urge to shop - e.g., you may say to yourself: “I don’t need to go shopping”, “I can’t afford to go shopping”, or “If I do something else to take my mind off it I will feel good later on because I won’t have spent any money.”
  • Avoid going to shopping centres where you will be tempted to browse in stores - e.g., go to a supermarket that is not located within a larger shopping complex.
  • Try to identify the negative thoughts or situations that may underlie your need to shop - e.g., “I hate my job. I always feel hopeless at the end of the day.” Try to reframe this in a more positive and helpful way, working towards finding a solution - e.g., “I’m not happy at work. I need to put in an effort to find a different job.”

Daniela Intili is a journalist and psychologist. She is a reporter for NBN news and writes regular features for Money magazine.

Where to get help

Psychologists can provide assistance in understanding and dealing with compulsive shopping. Please call the APS referral service on 1300 333 497 for more information or email referral@psychsociety.com.au.