Lisa Monks would shop mostly when she felt lonely. “It filled that void,” she says. Instead of sitting at home alone and miserable, she would hit the malls and chat up friendly sales clerks. “I would pretend it’s not so bad,” she says. “It was an escape from reality.”
Shopping addiction is a serious problem in North America, according to consumer psychologist Scott Rick at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Some psychologists estimate the condition occurs in 6 per cent of the population — and it’s probably on the rise, affecting slightly more women than men, he says.
“It’s never been easier to shop,” he says.
Online stores are always open, even when you’re drunk and your decision-making is skewed. People shop on their mobile phones while on the GO Train. And those 1-800 numbers are always beckoning … not to mention the sales.
Luckily, scientists are beginning to decode the disorder. The brains of compulsive shoppers are wired differently than most people’s, says neuroscientist Joseph Ciorciari, acting director of the Brain and Psychological Sciences Department of Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.
In a study published last year, Ciorciari and colleagues attached compulsive buyers and normal consumers to brain scanning (EEG) machines while they “shopped” for virtual items. They found that the visual areas of compulsive shoppers were turned on high alert as they scanned objects for potential purchase. The parts of the brain that label things as pleasurable were also busier, as were the decision-making pathways that lead to “Yes, I want that.”
The study shows that compulsive shopping can’t be dismissed as innocent “retail therapy.” The brains of shopping addicts are wired for the hunt. “They always want to have this feel-good sentiment,” says Ciorciari. And that constant craving is a hallmark of addiction.
When he put virtual shoppers into MRI machines, he found that the pleasure pathways in the brain lit up when they made purchases. The feel-good chemical dopamine, which is released in these reward circuits in response to good sex or a tasty meal, counteracts sadness and gives you the illusion of control when you’re feeling lost. “That’s why there is a lower bar for what you put in the cart,” says Rick.
The pleasure of shopping doesn’t just come from the acquisition itself, says Rick. Dim lighting, flowery scents, and attractive shop clerks produce a pleasant environment conducive to buying. And the compliments from sales staff — “Oh, brown is SO your colour!” — can be irresistible.
Monks was susceptible to persuasive salespeople. Skinny mirrors, attractive lighting and a few sips of champagne were recipes for disaster, she says.
Monks’ life spiralled downhill with each shiny new purchase. Over the years, as her dream of acting evaporated, she spent more and more money on sexy outfits and anti-aging creams. “The harder I try and nothing is working, the more I feel I deserve to have nice stuff,” she says.
She maxed out the “insanely high” limit on her credit card. She alienated her boyfriend, who disapproved of the buying. It wasn’t until her father died and she had to help her aging mother pay off her mortgage that reality set in. Monks realized she needed help.
Therapists treating shopping addiction focus clients’ awareness on the toll of purchases. Waldner helps clients stop spending by giving them lists of their behaviour’s bad effects that they can pull out when temptation strikes.
But just curbing cravings isn’t enough, he says. Whether it’s for cocaine or consuming, when the brain demands a buzz, you have to appease it. If you try to force yourself to forego these perks you’ll feel deprived and will eventually give in, says Waldner. He encourages clients to throw themselves into gratifying artistic pursuits — painting, writing or photography — as substitutes.
After she began supporting her mom, Monks realized she’d have to find creative alternatives to feel good. She began reading enjoyable books, worked out until she was exhausted at the gym and spent more time hanging out and laughing with her friends. She wrote a book about relationships, and has recently landed a blog on the Huffington Post.
While she still occasionally splurges on a dress, these lapses are only momentary. “Shopping doesn’t make me happy,” she says. “It’s a good feeling when you’ve done something positive and you’re working towards a goal,” says Monks.