Shop till you can’t stop

Shop­ping can be fun, and for most peo­ple it is rel­a­tively harm­less. For some, how­ever, it can lead to spend­ing sprees that spi­ral out of con­trol.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Health - By DANIELA SCHUMACHER and TERESA NAUBER

TEST­ING the lat­est gad­gets, rum­mag­ing through racks of clothes, buy­ing shiny new items on­line in just a cou­ple of clicks: shop­ping can be fun, and for most peo­ple it is rel­a­tively harm­less.

For some, how­ever, it can lead to spend­ing sprees that spi­ral out of con­trol. They buy things they never use and end up hoard­ing huge amounts of use­less stuff.

Even­tu­ally they get deeper and deeper into debt, and of­ten they end up alone: with­out a job, part­ner or friends.

Peo­ple with patho­log­i­cal pur­chas­ing be­hav­iours need sup­port, says Prof Nina Ro­manczuk-Seiferth, head psy­chother­a­pist at the Psy­chi­a­try and Psy­chother­apy Clinic in Ber­lin’s Charite uni­ver­sity hos­pi­tal in Ger­many.

Be­fore they can get help, how­ever, pa­tients need to recog­nise that their once-harm­less shop­ping sprees have be­come an ad­dic­tion.

Com­pul­sive buy­ing is one of sev­eral forms of ad­dic­tion that are not re­lated to particular sub­stances.

Un­like in drug ad­dic­tion, for ex­am­ple, the af­fected per­son does not crave a sub­stance like co­caine or al­co­hol, but rather an ac­tiv­ity.

How­ever, the mech­a­nisms are quite sim­i­lar, says Prof Astrid Mueller, of the Psy­cho­so­matic Medicine and Psy­chother­apy Clinic at Han­nover Med­i­cal School.

In both cases, a re­ward sys­tem is ac­ti­vated when the ad­dict is con­fronted with the ob­ject of their ad­dic­tion, whether it is a bot­tle of wine or a new pair of shoes.

At the mo­ment, there is only one form of ad­dic­tion un­re­lated to a sub­stance that is widely recog­nised as an ill­ness: gam­bling ad­dic­tion.

“Other ad­dic­tions, such as com­pul­sive buy­ing, are triv­i­al­ized,” Mueller says.

It is dif­fi­cult to say how many peo­ple are af­fected by the prob­lem, be­cause it can be hard to de­ter­mine the mo­ment when a com­pul­sive shop­per becomes an ac­tual ad­dict.

But in Ger­many, about 5% of the pop­ula- tion are es­ti­mated to be com­pul­sive buy­ers.

Prof Karl Koll­mann, who has car­ried out re­search on com­pul­sive buy­ing for the Aus­trian Labour Cham­ber, be­lieves social pres­sures are of­ten to blame.

“So­cially and cul­tur­ally, there is a re­quire­ment to live a ful­filled life on ev­ery level,” he notes.

Many peo­ple seek to re­ward them­selves at the end of a stress­ful work­ing day, for ex­am­ple by pur­chas­ing a new sweater. Con­sump­tion is a form of medicine when it comes to com­pen­sat­ing for the frus­tra­tions of ev­ery­day life, Koll­mann says.

“I com­pen­sate my­self by buy­ing my­self some­thing I like,” he ex­plains.

That is not a prob­lem in it­self, but peo­ple who are com­pul­sive buy­ers lose con­trol of this mech­a­nism. “Lik­ing gives way to want­ing,” Mueller says.

Buy­ing things then stops be­ing fun. It merely sat­is­fies an urge, and it fights off bore­dom.

Com­pul­sive buy­ing has been made even eas­ier by the op­tion of shop­ping on­line: with­out be­ing seen, at the click of a mouse and with­out cash. TV shop­ping, cat­a­logue shop­ping, on­line re­tail and dash but­tons make prod­ucts avail­able at any time and with ex­tremely short de­liv­ery times.

For some­one who lives with a com­pul­sive buyer, it can be dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand what is going on.

New shoes again? A new gad­get that no one will use? Few peo­ple sus­pect that this could in fact be a symp­tom of a dis­ease.

“Un­like a drug ad­dict, the com­pul­sive buyer never seems to be in bad shape,” says Mueller.

But those around them of­ten think they are weak-willed, a painful stigma. “Af­fected peo­ple of­ten feel guilty and ashamed of their prob­lem,” says Ro­manczuk-Seiferth.

So they tend to play down, jus­tify or hide their shop­ping ex­cesses, even from loved ones.

Ro­manczuk-Seiferth rec­om­mends that any­one close to a pa­tient should dis­cuss their be­hav­iour openly and try to help the per­son ad­mit they have a prob­lem. For that to work, it helps to show un­der­stand­ing and not to blame the com­pul­sive shop­per.

It is im­por­tant for loved ones of peo­ple who have this prob­lem to look af­ter them­selves and seek help too, if they need it. There are sup­port groups for ad­dicts, but also for those who live around them.

The first thing ad­dicts do in ther­apy is try to es­tab­lish what sit­u­a­tions trig­ger un­con­trol­lable pur­chases.

“To­gether, we look for other ways to re­ward one­self with­out buy­ing an un­nec­es­sary piece of cloth­ing,” Mueller says.

Like other ad­dicts, com­pul­sive shop­pers are never fully cured. They need to learn to con­trol their im­pulses, and to sus­tain that con­trol through­out their lives. – dpa

Many peo­ple feel the need to re­ward them­selves af­ter a hard day’s work, but for some this com­pul­sion can turn into an ad­dic­tion. — dpa

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