Compulsive buying disorder – or oniomania – is a serious problem that may mask mental health issues. There needs to be a greater understanding and recognition of just how damaging a shopping addiction can be, and to encourage sufferers to resist hiding behind their credit cards and seek help instead.
According to recent research in the UK, oniomania – also known as pathological buying, compulsive buying or buying addiction – affects up to 16 per cent of people. Although "shopaholic" and "retail therapy" are common and lighthearted phrases often used in jest, in some cases they can trivialise what can be a serious addiction, masking issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and low self-esteem.
Contrary to popular belief, that women struggle with compulsive buying more than men, both are susceptible to using the cycle of overspending as a response to mental health issues. People with oniomania experience an overwhelming and constant compulsion to shop and spend, whether for themselves or others. This triggers a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing feel-good hormones, such as dopamine, which activate the reward and motivation system of our brain.
It’s these short-lived feelings of pleasure and elation that addicts crave. In the absence of self-control and financial considerations, this repetitive behaviour can, over time, turn into a full-blown addiction with serious repercussions for relationships, family life, work, finances and emotions.
Any addiction, be it shopping or otherwise, is a way of dealing with negative emotions. Emotional distress can be the result of numerous factors, such as struggling with work pressure, family conflict or attempting to numb ourselves against psychological pain related to past trauma. The instant high and mood boost that shopping creates can repress these emotions and detract from the root cause
Signs and symptoms of shopping addiction
Often, friends or family members can spot the signs of shopping addiction before the addict is aware. Here are some symptoms to look out for in yourself and others.
- You (or someone you know) experience an instant improvement in mood – albeit a temporary euphoria – against a background of stress, pressure or other negative experiences occurring in life.
- You frequently exceed budgets when shopping and are suffering financial problems as a direct result.
- You continue to shop even when you know that it is financially unwise for you to do so.
- You often shop impulsively, not because you need or want certain items, but simply because you feel an overwhelming compulsion to do so.
- You experience a sense of shame or guilt about how much you have spent or how many items you have purchased.
- You hide or throw away items that you have purchased as a way of concealing your shopping from friends or family members.
- You try but fail to limit the frequency of your shopping trips or the amount of money you spend.
- You spend a disproportionate amount of time scrolling through online shopping sites / using shopping apps, at the expense of family time, your social life and work commitments.
- You constantly feel the need to reward yourself and others by purchasing lavish gifts.
- Your relationship with your partner / loved ones is increasingly strained as a result of you shopping habit.
Easy access in a digital age
Today's switched-on lifestyle can exacerbate the problem of compulsive shopping. In the digital age of smartphones, vulnerable addicts can find it impossible to resist 24/7 access to virtual shops and apps with their many offers, incentives and targeted advertisements, often encouraging us to buy things we don't need. Gratification for many is now only a simple click away. This instant hit can prove too much of a temptation for many and offers an easy escape route from day-to-day life, work or family issues, and so the behaviour is repeated and consequently spirals.
However, while today's age of online shopping may have heightened an already growing problem, consumerism and shopping addiction have both been around long before the internet and social media were developed. The causes of shopping addiction are typically a combination of an individual's biological predisposition and environmental factors. So, although online shopping and social media platforms can play on an addict's vulnerability, they are not the root cause of a diagnosis of compulsive buying.
Ways to control the habit
Noticing warning signs or triggers can be a useful first step in helping shopping addicts learn and practise self-control. Ask yourself honestly, when are you more likely to shop? Is there a certain day or time? Is it when you are feeling bored or anxious? Being more aware of your reactions can be useful – it can help your body's physical response to slow down and help you become more in tune with thoughts and feelings as they begin to increase. Other coping strategies may include mindful meditation, such as breathing exercises, blocking or deleting certain apps on your phone or writing down how you are feeling in that particular moment.
There are many other activities that can release a hit of feel-good chemicals, and compulsive shoppers can consider these the next time they are feeling vulnerable and at risk of making a purchase.
Physical activity: A run or even a brisk walk in the fresh air will help clear you mind from worries and unhelpful thoughts, and will help you to re-energise.
Listening to music: This is a great way to switch off the mind and help the body to relax.
Self-care: A massage is the perfect way to unwind. It also promotes a sense of relaxation and well-being.
A good night's sleep: Lack of sleep can seriously exacerbate ill mental health.
A balanced diet: A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, lean meat and olive oil has been proven to improve mental health.
Mandeep Jassal is a behaviour analyst at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai