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compulsive shopping: how onomania has become a 'new addiction'

Compulsive shopping in psychology is one of what are called 'new addictions', although it is not a recent disorder. In fact, shopping addiction was described as early as 1915 by the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, who called it 'oniomania', whose Greek etymology means 'mania to buy what is on sale'.

Compulsive shopping syndrome is a disorder in which the person makes purchases (despite being aware that they do not need what they are buying) in a compulsive manner, i.e. to eliminate a growing feeling of unease and tension. The disorder comes to a head when the morbid impulse to shop becomes uncontrollable, even though there are negative consequences for finances and interpersonal relationships.

Who suffers from compulsive shopping?

Compulsive shopping addiction is a booming disorder, affecting between 1% and 6% of the population and especially women between 35 and 40 years of age, of middle social class. The age of onset is around 17, although it emerges as a full-blown disorder about ten years later. 

In fact, the 23-31 age range is the age group most at risk and, even if the disease arises as early as adolescence, awareness of it comes later. The course is chronic, with no periods of remission, although some people report not having had any buying mania for months or years. When we speak of oniomania, the symptoms appear persistent, although at different levels of intensity.

In the severe form of the disorder, the average is 17 buying episodes per month that last about 7 hours each. This translates into a very high amount of hours that the person spends in compulsive shopping, often online.

Compulsive shopping: symptoms

Among the symptoms that allow compulsive shopping to be identified, researcher Susan McElroy identified a number of recurring situations:

the subject perceives the shopping spree as irresistible, intrusive or senseless; 

the purchase often requires spending beyond one's means or involves futile objects; 

the preoccupation or impulse causes a certain amount of stress, results in a considerable waste of time, and significantly interferes with social, work or financial functioning; 

excessive shopping does not occur exclusively during periods of mania or hypomania.

The causes of oniomania

Compulsive shopping has complex causes that are difficult to pinpoint but, according to some psychiatrists, a dysfunction in the production of serotonin and dopamine may underlie the behaviour:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released by the brain whenever gratification and satisfaction is experienced. Because it produces a sense of well-being, it activates the reward circuit, prompting people to repeat their behaviour and triggering the addiction mechanism;

the altered production of serotonin, on the other hand, would seem to be responsible for the lack of control over impulsivity, which leads the subject to immediately satisfy the need to buy. 

Psychological causes of compulsive shopping

Compulsive shopping behaviour could have psychological causes and be a consequence of a previous psychological distress, such as:

anxiety disorder;

low self-esteem;

obsessive compulsive disorder;

mood disorder;

substance addiction;

difficulty accepting oneself;

eating disorders. 

There also seems to be a link between depression and compulsive buying as a way of relieving painful emotional states.

The gratification following the purchase would seem to be the reinforcement that will lead the person to continue the behaviour every time they experience an unpleasant emotion. This happens despite the fact that relief and joy of the purchase are very brief and immediately followed by emotions such as guilt and disappointment.

What lies behind compulsive shopping? 

When shopping represents a real compulsive behaviour, which follows an obsession, we can speak of obsessive compulsive disorder. Shopping only becomes a true compulsion if it is a repetitive action enacted by the subject in order to reduce anxiety and discomfort due to an obsession, i.e. a recurring and pervasive thought that the person perceives as excessive and inappropriate, but from which he or she cannot escape. 

In addition to the characteristics of compulsion, however, compulsive shopping syndrome also implies other categories of psychological-behavioural distress that are often present at the same time

  • an impulse control disorder, in which the inability to control a certain behaviour is a central factor; an example is the compulsive buying of food, which, aimed at alleviating a state of malaise, loses its purpose and thus becomes a dysfunctional way of suppressing inner discomfort

  • a behavioural addiction, because it presents characteristics that clearly overlap with sexual or substance addiction, such as tolerance, craving, compulsion and abstinence.

With the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had proposed the inclusion of shopping addiction in a chapter dealing with behavioural addictions, but the complexity of defining these new addictions requires further study. Therefore, compulsive shopping has not yet been included in any category of the DSM-5. 

How to manage compulsive shopping? 

Several strategies can be implemented to learn how to manage the shopping mania. Among these, the person can:

1. keep a diary in which he/she notes down his/her spending;

2. make a shopping list and buy only what is written down;

3. pay only with cash; 

4. when the morbid impulse to buy appears, engage in substitute activities, such as engaging in a sporting activity or going for a walk;

5. resist the purchase for the first hour, trying to break the 'negative emotion-purchase-gratification' cycle.

What is online compulsive shopping disorder? 

The use of the internet has led to a huge expansion of the phenomenon of compulsive shopping, because any person with an internet connection can buy any kind of good, in shops all over the world with a simple click. Internet addiction is an already widespread problem that can also foster online shopping addiction. 

Especially in this latest pandemic period, where we spend a lot of time alone at home between household chores, studying, smart working and few social relationships, shopping at the click of a button can become a compulsive desire, with many negative effects.

Signs of an online compulsive shopping addiction

Symptoms of online shopping addiction include:

not being able to stop shopping

having constant thoughts of online shopping;

checking e-commerce sites or apps several times a day;

the tendency not to make returns but to keep everything one buys;

feeling guilty about purchases made;

low tolerance of boredom;

anxiety attacks if a purchase cannot be made;

loss of interest in other activities.

How to overcome online compulsive shopping syndrome?

With regard to online shopping addiction, some strategies to deal with it can be:

establish a weekly or monthly budget to spend;

postpone the time of purchase as much as possible;

delete access data stored on e-commerce sites, especially credit card data;

unsubscribe from receiving e-mails with special offers, discounts and sales communications;

try to keep busy with other things and get out of the house.

Compulsive shopping and psychotherapy

Compulsive shopping, as we have seen, can cause a real 'shopping sickness' and come to undermine self-esteem, which is particularly unstable and strongly influenced by mood and possession of objects. 

How to recover from compulsive shopping disorder? Seeking the help of an online psychologist from the Unobravo service can be the first step to becoming aware of compulsive shopping syndrome and dealing with it with the guidance of a mental health professional.

Recent studies have shown the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural psychotherapy and group therapy for treating compulsive shopping. During psychotherapy, certain steps will need to be taken:

  • identify the compulsive behaviour;

  • analysing the pros and cons of changing this behavioural mode;

  • introduce a money management system aimed at reducing economic and financial damage; 

  • analysing the behaviour, trying to recognise and explore the thought content and emotional states activated during purchases;

  • cognitively restructure dysfunctional beliefs with respect to shopping and objects; 

  • implement coping strategies.

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