Can Shopping Become An Addiction?

Dopamine is one helluva drug.

It's called retail therapy for a reason. And there's nothing wrong with a new pair of pumps to boost the mood every now and then, right?

Well that depends on just how frequent that 'now and then' is.

If your shopping habits start to have a negative impact on your finances, relationships or future plans, you might have a problem.

"An addiction to shopping is not yet in the diagnostic manual," Doctor Robyn Brown from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the University of Melbourne told HuffPost Australia.

"Although it's not recognised as an official addiction, shopping, like many behaviours [it] can become compulsive to the point where it is uncontrolled and therefore can have a hugely negative impact on one's' life."

Brown's passion is studying and understanding addictive behavior that can surround 'everyday' activities such as eating and shopping.

"I am a neuroscientist who researches the neural mechanisms underlying addiction, and am particularly interested in non-drug addictions -- so when everyday activities like eating, and shopping become problematic.

"It can be more challenging identifying, treating and getting support for these addictions because they are 'normal' activities that people do every day. For example, if someone says they have a heroin problem it is very easy to accept this person has a drug problem and needs help, but when someone says they have a problem with shopping and they tell their friend they need to avoid the mall, their request will likely not be taken seriously.

"Quite possibly the friend may dismiss any concerns that have been raised and even encourage you to go shopping with them because it's considered a normal activity, whereas you would never encourage someone to take drugs in the same way," Brown said.

Going to the shopping centre is the answer to so many problems. Bored? Need cheering up? Too hot outside? Go shopping.
Going to the shopping centre is the answer to so many problems. Bored? Need cheering up? Too hot outside? Go shopping.

While the cliche used to involve fast cars and fast women, perhaps a fast internet connection is part of the reason doctors like Brown are seeing a rise in not only porn and gambling addictions but also unhealthy shopping habits. Keeping up with the Joneses on Instagram doesn't help, either.

"Part of the issue, and we are seeing this a lot with other problematic behaviours as well, is the internet. The internet is wonderful for many reasons but it also allows us access to whatever we want, whenever we want," Brown said.

"Whether its porn or gambling, or shopping -- it's now accessible 24 hours a day. So in the past you may have decided to stay away from the shops so that you weren't tempted, but now you don't even need to leave your home."

Couple that with cues to spend money pretty much everywhere and the rise of fast fashion and you can see how problems perpetuate.

"Another issue is that there are triggers for shopping everywhere. You watch TV and see ads for all sorts of things. Advertising smoking has been banned, and yet advertising for gambling is still very much accepted, and it is rife," Brown said.

"This is a huge problem. Obviously ads for buying things is always going to be around but my point is that there's triggers everywhere you look -- on TV, on websites, on social media -- not just in stores

Moreover, fast fashion lends itself perfectly as a gateway to exorbitant spending. What's the harm in buying a $30 top or $70 dress? That cheap purchase seems innocent enough until you need more and more of them to get the same rush. That's exactly how that area of the brain works.

"The process that happens in the brain when you shop is similar to that which occurs when you encounter drugs or alcohol. Dopamine is released in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, and dopamine is released when a reward is unexpected or novel," Brown added.

"So when you suddenly splurge $100 on a new pair of shoes you get a dopamine release and before you know it you want to do it again to get the same feeling."

With services like Afterpay and tap-to-pay there are less and less barriers to purchasing than ever before.
With services like Afterpay and tap-to-pay there are less and less barriers to purchasing than ever before.

"The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain which is responsible for helping you stay in control of your behaviour and making sensible decisions based on consequences. This area is most likely impaired in compulsive shoppers in the same way it is in the brains of people that have been using drugs for a long time. This contributes to the inability of the person to stop themselves from seeking out that hit of dopamine when they buy something new."

That hit you feel is very real. An unrelated study into Parkinson's disease discovered just how powerful dopamine is.

"Interestingly, Parkinson's disease patients that are prescribed drugs to increase dopamine signalling in their brains have been shown to develop inhibitory control disorders such as compulsive shopping," Brown said.

"These people who have never displayed any sort of compulsive behaviour in their lives, once on these drugs for a period of time, can suddenly start shopping or gambling to the point where they lose huge amounts of money.

"The company that manufactures this drug has now had legal action taken against it because of the impact this has had on people's lives. This observation tells us that dopamine has a role to play in the behaviour."

So, how do you know if you have a problem? Take note of how you feel during and after shopping. Is there excitement and exhilaration followed by worry or regret?

"People who might have a shopping problem may hide their purchases from their partner, take tags off and pretend the item is not new, or feel guilt or shame after purchasing," Brown said.

"It's similar to food addiction -- people often eat in private and hide food wrappers or packaging from people around them. It is a very similar process.

"People who experience problems with shopping can benefit from therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy. This type of therapy works by engaging the prefrontal cortex to help the person begin to exert more control over their behaviour.

"While this therapy can be effective, there are very high relapse rates because it is difficult to avoid triggering situations. Simple things like cutting up credit cards and blocking certain problematic websites can make a big difference."

Infographic by Pound Place