Compulsive Shopping in Women

Posted on March 14th, 2013

Compulsive shopping, also known as shopping addiction, is an unofficial mental health disorder characterized by shopping or spending behaviors that function in roughly the same ways that alcohol or drug use function in substance addiction. It belongs to a larger of group of unofficial disorders known as behavioral addictions or process addictions. These addictions occur when normally harmless activities take over a person’s mental environment and disrupt his or her ability to participate in a productive, fulfilling life. The vast majority of people with an addictive relationship to shopping are women.

The Basics

Compulsive shopping has unofficial status in the US because it’s not currently recognized as a mental health disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, which produces the mental health guidelines followed by essentially all medical professionals. In part, this lack of recognition stems from a belief in parts of the medical community that compulsive shopping and other process addictions are merely learned behaviors and have no basis in physical changes inside the body or brain. The medical community once held the same view toward alcoholism and drug addiction; however, scientists and doctors now know that substance addictions stem in large part from chronic, serious changes in the brain’s use of dopamine, a neurotransmitting chemical that helps the brain produce pleasurable sensations.

As of 2012, mounting scientific evidence indicates that compulsive shopping and other process addictions develop in ways that closely resemble the development of substance addictions. Typically, an affected individual starts by engaging in an activity that increases dopamine levels and brings some sort of pleasure or reward; when people shop, this pleasure or reward typically comes from the anticipated or actual purchase of a needed or desired item. The addictive process begins when the frequent, repeated quest for a pleasurable reward gradually damages structures in the brain that rely on dopamine. Eventually, the voluntary activity that once brought pleasure changes into a compulsive, involuntary activity that offers the promise of pleasure, but never fulfills that promise.

Compulsive Shopping Symptoms

Since shopping is a commonplace event, compulsive shoppers may have no idea they have an addictive relationship to the activity. Potential symptoms of a shopping addiction include a persistent desire to shop for unnecessary items; persistent difficulty avoiding the actual purchase of unnecessary items; devotion of large amounts of time toward planning shopping trips, even when the object of a trip is trivial or nonessential; the onset of serious financial problems that stem from uncontrolled shopping behaviors; and the onset of serious personal, school-related or job-related problems that stem from uncontrolled shopping behaviors. In addition, compulsive shoppers frequently buy more items than they initially intended to purchase, hide their purchases in order to avoid scrutiny, rely heavily on credit cards to extend their purchasing power, and feel guilty in the aftermath of any given shopping spree.

Frequency in Women

According to a 2007 study published in World Psychiatry, fully 80 to 95 percent of all compulsive shoppers are women. While women almost certainly make up the clear majority of shopping addicts, this extreme number may be exaggerated. In part, this exaggeration may stem from gender-based differences in the acceptability of shopping, as well as from differences in the ways that men and women express their attitudes toward shopping. For instance, women who shop a lot tend to have an open attitude toward their enjoyment of the process, and also have a relative willingness to discuss this enjoyment with others. On the other hand, men who enjoy shopping tend to downplay their enjoyment and either avoid mentioning it or refer to it by euphemisms such as “going to the store.”

Links to Other Disorders in Women

A number of other mental health disorders frequently occur in people who shop compulsively, or in close relatives of people who shop compulsively. Examples of these disorders include major depression, various types of anxiety disorder, substance abuse and a compulsive hair-pulling syndrome known as trichotillomania. Medically serious depression, medically serious anxiety and trichotillomania are all much more likely to occur in women than in men. No one knows for sure, but compulsive shopping may have a comorbid relationship with these other conditions. This means that the simultaneous presence of a shopping addiction and one or more of these disorders may produce worse effects in the affected individual than any isolated disorder would produce on its own.

Considerations

Attitudes toward process addictions in general are changing within the medical community. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association will likely form a new category for these addictions, designated as behavioral addictions. While the status of shopping addiction will almost certainly not change, one process addiction (called pathological gambling) will probably receive official recognition; two other process addictions (Internet addiction and sex addiction) will probably be placed on an official list for further study and review.

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