Mental Health

Compulsive shopping masks underlying issues

2012-12-16T00:00:00Z 2012-12-19T15:42:20Z Compulsive shopping masks underlying issuesBy Vanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

Orange clearance stickers and rock bottom prices during the holiday shopping season can act as siren songs, luring people to the rocky shores of overspending and buying stuff they don't need.

But to a compulsive shopper, the thrill of getting a deal can feed a deeper desire. 

Compulsive shoppers often turn to purchasing to make them feel better or to avoid issues, said social worker Julie Kissee, a therapist and clinical supervisor for the employee assistance program with Franciscan Alliance.

Though not classified as an actual addiction the way drugs and alcohol are, compulsive shopping usually signals an underlying issue. 

"When we do find someone experiencing being a compulsive shopper, they're usually coming in for something else," Kissee said.

Depression or anxiety is often determined as the root cause. Some people have compulsive personalities, and it's a matter of finding their vice. Shopping is one. 

"They'll talk about it as 'retail therapy,'" Kissee said.

The compulsion may start with the innocent appearance of shopping, but when others comment on the frequency of shopping, the person begins to hide it. Then a compulsion develops, an overwhelming need to shop.

Compulsive shoppers often have clothes in their closets that have never been worn and still have the price tags on them. They have boxes of items they bought but never opened. Other warning signs include living beyond their means, accruing credit card debt along the way.

Kissee said people tend to seek treatment once guilt piles up or they start to notice signs of depression, when the situation becomes painful enough. The most common treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy.

"It's very effective to break down what's going on," she said.

A therapist can discover whether the root of the matter is a coping mechanism, avoidance or a learned behavior. Learned behaviors can be un-learned and replaced with a new behavior, she said. If it is an impulse disorder, anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications may help.

"Overall, it's really looking at the thought process," she said. "We try to make sure we explore everything." 

Using shopping as a reason to socialize is no different than going to movies with friends. The problem lies in the inability to stop. 

"There's nothing wrong with shopping, there's nothing wrong with the mall," Kissee said. "But if your life starts to unravel and becomes unmanageable because of your behaviors, that's where we start looking at that compulsivity."

An article from The World Psychiatric Association, published on the website for the National Center for Biotechnology Information, states that the disorder has a lifetime prevalence of 5.8 percent in the United States.

People with a compulsive buying disorder devote a significant time to shopping and spending. Their increasing level of anxiety leads to a sense of completion when they purchase something, the article states.

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