It’s a standard staple of chicklit literature – the main character who finds it hard to resist the temptations of shopping. But for Chennai-based computer professional Neeta SenGupta (name changed), this is not a fictional situation. Every month, as her credit card bills arrive in the mail, SenGupta and her husband face off over their amounts. “I know very well that the fights that we have over the figures in these bills is eating into our otherwise rock-solid relationship,” admits SenGupta, adding, “But still I feel powerless to fight the shopping impulse when it hits me. After each splurge, I start dreading the next fight I’ll have with my husband, and to tide over the stress, I go shopping again. I really want to break this dreadful cycle, but don’t know how to.”
According to the experts, a shopping addiction is not as uncommon as it seems. “What Neeta is calling a habit is actually an addiction,” explains Dr Ashima Puri, consultant psychologist at Aashlok Hospital, Delhi. “Shopping is fun for most of us. But when this seemingly innocent pastime spirals out of control, it gets classified as an addiction.”She adds, "There is a clear-cut distinction between shopping for a need and shopping to fill a need. And therein lies the divider that differentiates a shopper from an obsessive shopper."
Mamta Singla, consultant clinical psychologist at Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon, agrees with Dr Puri. She says, “Actually, addiction is defined as having a compulsion to commit a behaviour, being unable to stop a behaviour, and continuing the behaviour despite harmful consequences. Research now shows that addictive behaviour often provides a momentary lift in one’s mood. A flood of ‘good feeling’ producing adrenaline hormones rewards a shopaholic.” Singla adds, “Unfortunately the lift is not permanent, and the shopaholic must go out and shop more in order to find the next boost in hormones.”
“It is estimated that one in 20 men and women fall into the category of a compulsive shopper,” reveals Shailaja Pokhriyal, consultant clinical psychologist, Dr BL Kapur Memorial Hospital, Delhi. “So there are a lot of people out there who tend to hear ‘Buy, Buy, Buy...’ when they go out to shop.”
What leads to it?
Like other addictions, a shopping addiction too stems from a lack of self-esteem, loneliness and emptiness. “This disorder has been linked to emotional deprivations in childhood, an inability to tolerate negative feelings, the need to fill an internal void, excitement-seeking, excessive dependency, approval-seeking, general impulsiveness and compulsiveness, and the need to gain control,” lists Singla.
Often the root cause lies way back in childhood. “About a year ago, a man brought his 30-year-old wife to me with a complaint of excessive shopping. After many sessions with her, it turned out that her behaviour stemmed from her childhood conditioning,” shares Dr Himanshu Saxena, senior consultant psychiatrist, Jaipur Golden Hospital, Delhi. He adds, “As a child, whenever she would buy something, her parents used to praise her for her independent behaviour. She grew up enjoying the feeling of being different from others, and felt superior to her friends and cousins. Gradually she got addicted to shopping.”According to Dr Puri, sometimes a loss can also trigger a shopping addiction. He says, "I remember a mother-daughter duo from Gurgaon whose shopping habits spiralled out of control when their teenage son/brother committed suicide. Sadness leads to low self-worth and people when emotionally weak begin to look for a magical solution to help fill the void. Often shopping gives them that fix."
A dangerous high
Shopping can send many people into debt, place a strain on their marriages and basically ruin their lives, say the experts. Dr Puri shares the story of a 28-year-old woman who opted to break off her one-year-old marriage when her husband refused to let her buy a Versace bag worth one lakh. “Obviously there must be other issues too in their relationship, but different shopping sensibilities was the one they just couldn’t resolve,” says Dr Puri, adding, “Then there was a 29-year-old mother of two children whose guilt brought her to me when she realised that because of her incessant shopping jaunts she was totally neglecting her children and husband.”
According to the experts, it is important to understand that shopping and spending money will not assure more love, or bolster self-esteem, or heal hurts and regrets. Nor will it ease stress. “Relationships also get affected as often a compulsive shopper cuts family (and friends) time and misses social engagements because of this addiction. I once handled a man who would lie to his parents all the time and hide his shopping,” recalls Pokhriyal.
“Actually shopaholics tend to emotionally distance themselves from friends and family in an attempt to hide their excesses and keep trying to cover their debts with deception,” points out Dr Puri. “There are other practical repercussions too. Shopaholics are always short of money and keep borrowing. Soon people start avoiding them and they are left friendless, which only compounds the problem,” shares Dr Saxena.
Sometimes, a shopping addiction can occur with a cluster of other addictions – such as gambling, drinking, drugs, eating disorders etc. Pokhriyal remembers a 26-year-old boy who came to her with a shopping addiction and alcohol abuse problem. “He would shop for clothes all the time and when he was short of money, walk long distances and skip meals to save money for shopping. Missing office hours to go for shopping was regular too and his alcohol addiction made the situation worse,” she explains.
Help for the problem
Doctors say that a shopping addiction can be controlled by undergoing counselling with a clinical psychologist. It usually requires a multifaceted approach; and there are no standard treatments. “Although some medications show promise, especially for people who have an underlying case of depression, results are mixed, so they should not be considered a sole or reliable treatment,” says Pokhriyal. “Going to the root cause is essential,” says Dr Saxena. For example, for some patients, cognitive behaviour therapy and hypnosis will work. But there are a lot of self checks too (see box).
Are you a shopaholic?
Do you go on buying binges when you feel lonely, anxious, disappointed, depressed or angry?
Do you feel a ‘high’ when you go on a buying binge?
Do you feel on edge, agitated or irritable when you haven’t been able to buy something?
Do you spend a lot of time watching the shopping channel on TV or surfing shopping websites?
Do you buy something and then feel guilty about it?
Do you often run your credit cards up to the limit?
Do you try to stay within budget, but always fall short of your goal?
Expert: Shailaja Pokhriyal, consultant clinical psychologist, Dr B L Kapur Memorial Hospital, Delhi
Control your obsession
Own up to the problem, and let people in your life know that you have ‘out of control’ spending habits.
Acknowledge debts and seek help to resolve them. Take help from consumer credit counselling services.
Figure out the root cause. What triggers you to go shopping? Keep a log.
Window shop only after stores have closed for the day. Otherwise leave your wallet at home.
Replace shopping with exercise. When the urge strikes, get on a treadmill or go for a run. Push as hard as you can to release endorphins and get a ‘runner’s high’.
Cut up all your credit cards and only make purchases that you can pay for with cash.
Create a budget to track your spending.
Develop and stick to a weekly spending savings plan.
Do not go shopping alone. Always take a friend along.
Do not shop without a list of specific items to buy and avoid malls.
Seek professional help or counselling to manage depression or anxiety.
Experts: Mamta Singla, consultant clinical psychologist at Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon; Dr Ashima Puri, consultant psychologist, Aashlok Hospital, Delhi.