Compulsive shopping: it’s a real diagnosis

Monica Matys
Written by Monica Matys

One for you, two for me. Sound familiar? It’s a classic trap around holiday shopping, where the buyer gets enticed by all the glitz, selection and pre-holiday sales. Mix in the stress of the season, and you have a prime recipe for retail therapy overload. While many people love to shop (present company included), the problem is when it truly becomes a problem.

While the term “shopaholic” has been thrown around layman’s circles for ages, doctors actually do recognize “compulsive shopping” as a real diagnosis. American studies estimate about 6 per cent of their population suffer from the problem. In fact, there has been burgeoning interest in compulsive shopping, recognizing it as part of the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorders. So what defines a compulsive shopper? Dr. Peggy Richter, Head of the Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre says there are several hallmarks: not being able to pay off your debts, making shopping a priority over other important things in your life, and having loved ones comment that it’s out of control.

“Knowing this about yourself in advance if you feel you are prone is an important thing,” says Dr. Richter. “One of the key transmitters, dopamine, is a very important substance when it comes to our reward system in the brain. And so it may be that for whatever reason, people who are prone to this problem, there is more release of this pleasure transmitter.”

If this is all sounding too familiar, take heart, there are things you can do, she says. The first step is always identifying the problem, and then taking steps to fix it. Know there are high-risk times, including the holidays, when stress and lack of sleep can make you more vulnerable to a retail meltdown. So try replacing your shopping time with healthier ventures, like a trip to the gym. If you must shop, do so only with cash. Only go shopping when you need something. And take Santa’s lead: bring a list and always check it twice.

Dr. Richter says some people will benefit from more expert intervention from a psychologist or psychiatrist well versed in this area. Doctors at Sunnybrook have treated many, helping target patterns of thinking that may distort what is pleasurable. In severe cases, medications may be needed. The bottom line is, help is available.

And for everyone, shopping smart is always the way to go. Consumer Protection Ontario offers some helpful information when shopping online or at a retailer.

So as you navigate through one of the most consumer-driven periods of the year, be real and realistic. And remember that you can’t buy good mental health in any store.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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