Compulsive buying can have devastating consequences
The seductive thrill of browsing for desired things, whether online or in shops, is a rarely acknowledged form of addiction. Known as compulsive shopping, buying or spending, this form of impulse control disorder can be destructive for individuals and financially devastating for families.
“Social isolation leading to loneliness, stress and a shift to online shopping since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has created fertile ground for compulsive buying. Online shopping is a very accessible enabler to the habit, allowing people to indulge 24 hours a day from the convenience of their cellphones or computers. Technology and the recent widespread shift towards e-commerce have only increased the temptation,” says Ashley Daniels, a clinical psychologist practising at Akeso Kenilworth in Cape Town.
“Compulsive shopping usually goes undiagnosed and unacknowledged until a crisis point is reached, often with dire consequences for the individual in both their home and working lives. As the addictive behaviour becomes more deeply rooted, the individual tends to dedicate more time, thought and resources to shopping. People with this compulsion often become more secretive about their buying habits as debts accumulate.
“In terms of the underlying processes, the brain chemistry and neural pathways are very similar for people who suffer from behavioural addictions like compulsive shopping, and those suffering a substance use disorder such as an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
“The brain’s reward system is stimulated with the release of serotonin and dopamine when the person partakes in the addictive behaviour, making them feel good and reinforcing the association. This only further strengthens the compulsion to keep buying, even when the person can no longer afford to do so.
“If you find yourself spending more and more time browsing and researching products to the point where it intrudes on your work or family time, or you are getting into debt, it may be time to seek professional support.
“It is frighteningly easy to spend a lot of money in a short time when shopping online, and often it is only when the financial consequences can no longer be concealed that people realise they need help for compulsive buying. Awareness and seeking professional help can prevent the situation from spiralling out of control,” says Daniels.
“It is, unfortunately, fairly common for people to develop compulsive buying as a substitute for another addiction. For example, a person who gives up smoking may seek a sense of fulfilment from turning to shopping. People with anxiety or depression, and those with a family history of substance use or impulse control disorders may be at greater risk of developing an addiction, and should therefore be especially vigilant.
“Any addiction is a coping mechanism for dealing with stress or uncomfortable situations. The more convenient shopping becomes, especially where the person has access to credit, the harder it can be to control the compulsion to shop.
“In extreme cases, inpatient treatment may initially be required if a shopping problem has taken a particularly strong hold. Often compulsive buying is related to another mental health condition, and a holistic treatment approach that seeks to address the addiction and mental health elements in tandem is often more effective.
“Individual consultations with a psychologist and group therapy are both valuable in supporting the journey to overcome behavioural addictions. To make progress, the individual needs to come to the realisation that shopping is causing dysfunction in their lives,” he explains.
“A cognitive behavioural approach is often helpful in challenging the addiction cycle. People are empowered to recognise the thoughts and behaviours that inevitably lead to destructive consequences, and are equipped with the tools to better manage these impulses.
“It takes courage and perseverance, but it is possible for compulsive shoppers to change their lives, particularly with professional help and social support,” Daniels concludes.
For information about mental health services, accessing care, information about mental health issues, or for help in an emotional crisis, Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, emergency support can be reached on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day.
Contact Akeso on email@example.com; visit www.akeso.co.za; or book psychologist and occupational therapist consultations via www.copetherapy.co.za and psychiatrist consultations through Netcare appointmed™, online at www.netcareappointmed.co.za or by calling 0861 555 565. The COPE Therapy website www.copetherapy.co.za also contains many useful blog posts on various issues and tips relating to mental health.