What to do if your shopping is causing you harm

'These are people who are struggling with urges to buy and shop despite harmful consequences,' says UCLA Health's Dr. Timothy Fong.

For most people, shopping is at best fun and at worst a chore. But for some, shopping – online or in-person – can have serious harmful consequences. Here are some tips to determine if you or a loved one has a shopping problem and what to do about it.

Generally speaking, “shop till you drop” is a lighthearted expression of the pleasure many consumers feel sauntering through malls and browsing store racks for just the right thing. For some, though, power shopping is not about finding value, and there’s nothing lighthearted about it.

Dr. Timothy Fong, clinical professor of psychiatry and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, has seen people whose lives have been devastated by shopping disorder.

There was the middle-aged woman who resorted to criminal activity to fund her habit; the man so hooked on the high he got from getting a good deal on a new car that he had a dozen of them sitting unused at home — along with several hundred thousand dollars in debt; women with full racks of clothes that still had the price tags on them; men with garages full of gadgets they used once, if at all.

As we approach the holiday shopping season, it’s worth noting that there are some for whom shopping behaviors can be as destructive as any other addictive disorder, with consequences that can be equally severe: job loss, high levels of emotional pain, financial distress, domestic violence, even suicide.

For some, it may be a case of the occasional binge to cope with depression or anxiety (informally known as “retail therapy,” but it is not a recognized form of treatment). For others, there are clear signs of a potentially harmful situation.

“These are people who are struggling with urges to buy and shop despite harmful consequences,” Dr. Fong says. “As with other addictive disorders, there is an inability to stop or contain the shopping — even though clear harm is coming from it.”

Dr. Fong offers the following advice for people who are concerned about their own or a family member’s shopping behaviors.

For some people, shopping – online or in-person – can have serious harmful consequences.
"Shopping problems will definitely continue as shopping in the online space has become even easier, more accessible and essentially instantaneous and anonymous," says Dr. Timothy Fong. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Recognize the signs

To determine if shopping habits should be a cause for concern, consider the following questions: What impact is the shopping having on the family unit? Is the relationship between spouses deteriorating? Are depression or personality changes related to the shopping? Is the preoccupation causing the shopper to frequently miss work or pass up social engagements? Are there severe financial problems? Does shopping improve the quality of one’s life or create problems?

Express concern, not anger

Shopping disorder is often marked by playful arguments between spouses in the early stages.

“And then it escalates and there is yelling, demands are made and not met, and no one ever thinks to seek help,” Dr. Fong says. “Many times, family members will personalize it and assume the shopper can control the behavior, but chooses not to out of spite.”

Dr. Fong urges anyone who thinks he or she is struggling with harm created by their shopping to tell someone, and for loved ones not to approach the shopper by saying “stop” or asking why, but by expressing concern for how the behavior is affecting the family.

Address what’s driving the behavior

Once the issue is recognized, the next step is examining the underlying issue driving the shopper’s inability to stop. If it’s depression, for example, often treating that condition is enough to improve the shopping behavior.

Identify the triggers

Simply recognizing the things that instigate shopping disorder can be an important first step in dealing with it. Is it an argument with a spouse? A hard day at work? An ad promoting a sale?

“We all have times where we are upset or feel angry or depressed, and we look for something to take the edge off,” Dr. Fong explains. “That’s when healthy people might turn to exercise, connecting with people, or talking to a trusted family member or friend.”

Make it difficult

In a consumer-driven society where people have free time, access to financial credit and a constant barrage of ads – these create a vulnerable environment for those with shopping problems. There are practical steps that can set up barriers to the behavior. Among those is for shoppers to avoid shopping alone, to structure their time so that there aren’t vulnerable periods in which they have nothing to do and the malls are open.

Other strategies include using credit cards with low limits, not taking out online loans, adhering to a strict shopping list rather than going on open-ended excursions, shopping with others and not shopping when angry, upset or lonely.

Seek professional help

For some, self-help strategies are not enough. As with other similar disorders, treatment options include a combination of individual psychotherapy, 12-step support groups, family therapy and medications to reduce the cravings.

Also, similarly, the road to recovery can be challenging.

“Patients will vow never to shop again, but obviously that’s not possble,” Dr. Fong says. “It’s important to recognize that recovery takes time and support.”

Dr. Fong says very little is known about the causes of shopping disorder because there have been very few funded studies. But, “shopping problems will definitely continue as shopping in the online space has become even easier, more accessible and essentially instantaneous and anonymous,” he says.

Dan Gordon is the author of this article.


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