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What is OCDRelated Symptoms & ConditionsCould compulsive shopping be a mental health problem?

Could compulsive shopping be a mental health problem?

11 min read
Erica Digap Burson

By Erica Digap Burson

Reviewed by Patrick McGrath, PhD

Aug 18, 2023

You love to shop…or do you?

We’ve all experienced the thrill of a great buy, and the term “retail therapy” exists for a reason—it can feel good! A shopping spree can be a great way to blow off steam, boost your mood, or just treat yourself to something nice after a particularly stressful month.

But when it comes to compulsive shopping, the line between enjoying it and being tortured by it is thin. Maybe you want to be able to stop yourself from purchasing things that you don’t need, but you just can’t seem to hold yourself back. Maybe your finances have taken a toll, and every big purchase puts you in a rocky place once it comes time to pay your bills. Or maybe, you spend hours on end looking for the “perfect” item to buy—which is valuable time that could probably be better spent on other parts of your life.

If you’re wondering whether your compulsive shopping is a sign of a mental health issue, you’re not alone. This article will explore possible explanations behind your compulsive shopping habit, as well as what you can do to cope.
Is compulsive shopping a mental health issue?
Shopping for fun things is, quite literally, a reward. When you go shopping, your brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for your “reward center” that makes you feel good and motivates you to continue doing that behavior in order to continue feeling good.

We also live in a society where shopping is encouraged left and right, marketing campaigns are aggressive and widespread, and we’re constantly being exposed to desirable new items for sale. So in many ways, shopping and spending is a fairly normal habit, even if it may not necessarily be the most financially viable choice for everyone.

But even beyond just buying things that you like and want, that dopamine surge means that the act of shopping itself can be, in a word, addictive. Because it’s linked to your reward system, dopamine is the same neurochemical that is thought to be involved in other addictions like gambling, internet addictions, and yes, shopping.

So if you’re getting to the point that your shopping sprees feel out of your control, you regularly feel anxious after buying something, or if other areas of your life are taking a hit as a result, it could be a sign that something more serious is going on. Beyond the possibilities of poor financial literacy or just a personal tendency to “treat yourself” more often, compulsive shopping can sometimes be a sign that there’s a mental health issue at play.

There’s no official diagnosis defined by the DSM-5 that specifically ties into shopping, but it’s sometimes been called a shopping addiction, compulsive spending behavior, or oniomania. In some cases, a propensity to compulsively spend has also been tied to other mental health disorders like OCD, hoarding, or depression.

So how do you know when you’re shopping too much? NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Patrick McGrath, explains that compulsive shopping can become a problem if your spending habits are coming at the detriment of your ability to pay your bills. Similarly, it can also be a problem if spending and shopping turn into a main, significant way that you cope with your anxieties, stress, or sadness. “If you get a big thrill out of purchasing things, you’re going to spend a lot,” he explains. “You’re using acquiring and shopping as a form of therapy for yourself.”
How to tell the difference between “normal” shopping sprees versus compulsive shopping
Even with that said, shopping can be a treat for anyone, and it’s not unusual to go on a shopping spree if you’re feeling especially stressed out and sad (especially given how good it is at boosting your mood). Some researchers have hypothesized that some amount of “retail therapy” can actually be a good thing. For example, one study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology theorized that shopping can help people establish a sense of control over their lives and subsequently reduce feelings of sadness.

So how can you differentiate a healthy shopping spree from compulsive shopping?

This doesn’t necessarily come down to the amount of money that you’re spending, since everyone’s financial situation is different. It’s also highly dependent on the circumstances around your spending: for example, if you’re shopping a lot during the holidays to get presents for everyone and spending a lot of money, this isn’t necessarily compulsive shopping behavior.

So while the amount of money involved is obviously a huge factor that can impact how your compulsive shopping affects your quality of life later, you should also be looking at the behavior itself if you’re concerned that it surpasses normal shopping habits.

A good place to start is by looking at what’s actually driving you to make all of those purchases. Are you splurging on an item because you really want it, or are you getting more satisfaction from the experience of shopping itself? Remember, that dopamine surge comes from the anticipation of shopping—not necessarily from the item itself. Splurging on an item you really want and will enjoy having is normal shopping behavior, but getting joy purely from the actual act of shopping (and more importantly, doing it often and impulsively) is not, especially if all of that spending is impacting the rest of your life.

Dr. McGrath poses some questions to ask yourself if you’re faced with the possibility that your shopping has become compulsive: “‘Do I need it or do I want it?’ If you want something, that’s fine too. But if you want it, do you have the means to be able to afford it? Do you have a place to put it? Do you maybe already have one of them but you can’t find it because there’s so much stuff in the house?”

There are also some screening tools, like the Bergen shopping addiction scale, that are used by some mental health professionals to gauge just how intense your urge to shop is. This screening tool asks you to rank how much you agree with several different statements to help reveal your attitude and motivation around shopping, like:

I think about shopping/buying all the time.
I shop in order to feel better.
Shopping/buying is the most important thing in my life.
I shop so much that it negatively affects my daily obligations.
I feel an increasing inclination to buy things.
I have tried to cut down on shopping without success.

By asking yourself these questions the next time you feel the nagging urge to fill up your shopping cart, it could give you some hints as to whether your shopping is serving some function besides just a quick dopamine surge.
Mental health issues that can occur alongside compulsive shopping
A pressing, overwhelming urge to shop can be indicative of a couple of different mental health issues. If you are concerned that your shopping behavior is not normal, your first step should be to talk to a therapist.

The first possibility is that you’re dealing with a so-called shopping addiction. This behavior goes by many names, including compulsive buying behavior and compulsive shopping behavior. However, it’s important to note that compulsive shopping is not actually an officially recognized and diagnosable mental health disorder in the DSM-5. As a result, experts are still working on defining what this behavior actually is—some liken it to an “impulse control disorder,” while others consider it a behavioral addiction. It’s also been compared to other kinds of behavioral addictions like sexual addiction, gambling disorder, and internet addiction.

Compulsive shopping seems to co-occur with some other psychiatric disorders. For example, compulsive shopping behaviors have been seen fairly frequently in patients with mood disorders like depression. It’s also been associated with other “impulse control disorders,” where someone participates in a compulsive behavior for instant gratification even if there are long-term consequences.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also has fascinating connections to compulsive shopping behaviors. OCD is a disorder that is defined by obsessions, or repetitive and intrusive thoughts, feelings, and urges, as well as compulsions, or repetitive behaviors that are done to mitigate the stress and anxiety from those obsessions or to prevent a feared outcome. Some experts have classified compulsive shopping as obsessive-compulsive behavior in the past, but it is now thought to be more closely tied to behavioral addictions or impulse control issues. Still, there are several ways that out-of-control spending can be linked to OCD.

“Shopping can be a distraction or relief from the intrusive thoughts if you get a rush out of shopping,” explains Dr. McGrath. “If you learn over time that it feels good, you’re going to keep doing that more and more.”

Shopping can also be involved in a variety of other compulsive behaviors under OCD. For example, Dr. McGrath outlines an example situation in which someone has Relationship OCD, a subtype of OCD characterized by persistent intrusive thoughts or worries about romantic relationships. Someone with this kind of OCD might feel a need to buy their partner gifts whenever they experience an intrusive thought that their partner isn’t in love with them anymore. Over time, the shopping only gets more frequent and expensive, and the thoughts return again and again.

There are other manifestations of OCD that could also lead to excessive shopping, like the compulsive need to buy items in certain numbers. In all cases of shopping-related OCD there’s an element of easing the intrusive thoughts or worries. “OCD might tell you that you have to get these things in order to function and be okay,” says Dr. McGrath. “So then the shopping looks like it’s the issue, when it’s really an OCD issue.”

Finally, compulsive shopping is also sometimes linked to hoarding, a mental health disorder in which someone acquires large amounts of items and won’t get rid of them even if they have little value. However, it’s important to note that shopping alone doesn’t make a hoarder. As Dr. McGrath explains, “Hoarding is not an acquisition problem; it’s a discarding problem. There are a lot of people who might acquire a lot of things—but if they also discard a lot of things, then it’s not a hoarding problem.”
Ways that compulsive shopping can affect your life
The first and perhaps most obvious impact that compulsive shopping can have on your life is directly on your wallet. Someone who is compulsively shopping might experience the impact on their finances, especially if they just can’t seem to resist buying something even if they don’t really need it or already have plenty of it.

Impulse shopping can also impact your quality of life, as is true in the case of people who hoard their purchases. In these situations, someone might amass enormous amounts of purchases that aren’t necessarily useful, resulting in clutter and disorganization that impacts their ability to function on a daily basis.

But perhaps most pressing is how compulsive shopping can impact your relationship with others, including your loved ones. If you are constantly prioritizing your need to spend, you not only may be putting your need to spend above the needs of your family, but it can also directly change how you interact with people close to you.

To highlight this, Dr. McGrath tells a story of a patient he has worked with who lost her son after a routine operation. Afterward, she adopted a child and proceeded to buy the child huge amounts of stuff—even though the child didn’t actually want all of it. This shopping addiction also became a hoarding problem, with the home being taken over by multiples of the same items, ultimately to the detriment of her family’s well-being until treatment.
How to cope with compulsive shopping and break the habit
Because compulsive shopping isn’t currently a diagnosable condition in and of itself, and because there are so many other potential issues at play, it can be hard to know where to begin. The good news, though, is that help is available.

One of the first places to start is working with a therapist. By working with a qualified mental health professional, you may be able to figure out the reasons underlying your urges to shop, find other ways to cope, and ultimately control those behaviors so that they have less of an impact on the rest of your life, and so you can enjoy shopping in a healthy and fulfilling way.

Another great place to start is by working with an organizer. By getting a handle on all of your current possessions, you can have a better idea of what purchases are actually necessary. This can also help you live in a more organized, functional home so that you don’t find yourself compulsively buying items that you already have or don’t actually need.

Budget setting is another good tool for getting a handle on your finances. Dr. McGrath explains, “You can also think about three things that you would really like to get, then work towards a goal for saving for those things and rewarding yourself for it. This can help you practice saving after you’ve paid for all of the bills and important expenses.”

Finally, if you are diagnosed with OCD or hoarding, or are concerned that your excessive shopping habits may be linked to one of these conditions, it’s worth talking to a mental health professional who specializes in OCD and related conditions. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard for OCD treatment and helps people with OCD manage their compulsions and deal with the anxiety of their obsessions.

For hoarding, other forms of CBT may be used as well, in order to help you understand and work with the emotional reasons behind your hoarding, while also providing a structured approach to organizing and discarding hoarded belongings. During treatment for hoarding, the support of trusted family members and friends can often make a major difference in your journey to recovery.

If you believe that your spending problems are stemming from OCD or hoarding, schedule a free call with the NOCD Care team to learn more. NOCD Therapists have received specialty training in treating OCD and related disorders like hoarding, from some of the world’s leading experts.