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.
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