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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Shopping Spree, or Addiction?

What happens when shopping spirals out of control, and in some cases, becomes an addiction?
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

From hitting the mall with your girlfriends on a Saturday afternoon, to holiday spending on gifts that go under the tree, shopping could be called one of America's favorite pastimes.

For most people, it means some new clothes for work or a small trinket for a friend. For others, however, shopping is much more than an enjoyable pastime, and in some cases, it is a real and destructive addiction that can turn into a financial disaster.

"Compulsive shopping and spending are defined as inappropriate, excessive, and out of control," says Donald Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. "Like other addictions, it basically has to do with impulsiveness and lack of control over one's impulses. In America, shopping is embedded in our culture; so often, the impulsiveness comes out as excessive shopping."

Sometimes referred to as "shopoholism," shopping addiction can wreak havoc on a person's life, family, and finances. Experts explain to WebMD why shopping can be so addictive, what the warning signs are, and how to stop the cycle of spending.

Reinforced Shopping

"No one knows what causes addictive behaviors, like shopping, alcoholism, drug abuse, and gambling," says Ruth Engs, EdD, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University. "Some of the new evidence suggests that some people, maybe 10%-15%, may have a genetic predisposition to an addictive behavior, coupled with an environment in which the particular behavior is triggered, but no one really knows why."

While the origin of addictions remains uncertain, why addicts continue their destructive behaviors is better understood.

"Individuals will get some kind of high from an addictive behavior like shopping," says Engs. "Meaning that endorphins and dopamine, naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain, get switched on, and the person feels good, and if it feels good they are more likely to do it -- it's reinforced."

So what are the telltale signs that shopping has crossed the line and become an addiction?


"There are certainly a lot of commonalities among shopoholics and other addicts," says Engs. "For instance, while alcoholics will hide their bottles, shopoholics will hide their purchases."

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