Shop ’til your dopamine drops, then stop.

Some love to shop. Some hate to shop. And some need to shop.

“I was like a lot of girls in the U.S. who are interested in fashion, clothing and cosmetics, and I liked to shop,” says Avis Cardella, author of Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict. “But after my mother died unexpectedly when I was in my early 20s, shopping became problematic for me. I used it as a way of escaping my grief and filling a void for how much I missed her.”

For 15 years after her mother passed away, Cardella shopped daily. As a model and fashion writer in New York City, her environment didn’t exactly help. “The idea of shopping for things and looking fashionable was the norm, but for someone who had a problem like I did, it only made it worse,” she says.

“I’d get an exhilarated feeling when I’d go shopping. I’d buy things and then immediately feel let down afterwards. Often I’d buy things I didn’t use or wear,” she says. “I’d get an urge that I had to have something and once I did, the excitement would dissipate and I’d have the desire to go out and buy again.”

Cardella began to feel more and more uncomfortable while shopping, but she recalls a tipping point that involved buying an abundance of underwear. “I became quite disgusted with the whole thing. Afterwards, I wanted to take it all and dump it in the trash,” she says. “It was then that I realized it couldn’t be normal that when I went shopping I felt dizzy and giddy, and sweat through my clothes.”

High of the Buy

Terrence Daryl Shulman, J.D., LMSW, founder of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding, and author of Bought Out and $pent! says Cardella’s experience is common, and many times it is not about the stuff purchased.

“Shopping can definitely trigger chemical reactions in the brain for some people. In the beginning, they get a real high, but then their tolerance builds up and they’re just trying to function,” he says.

Whether you’re using a drug, food or something else to change the chemistry in your brain, Shulman says if you keep doing it, your brain isn’t designed to have a constant bombardment of pleasure chemicals.

“They’re supposed to be released from time-to-time. When you keep firing these chemicals, they get depleted, which triggers cravings for more, withdrawal symptoms, and loss of control. All the same features of an eating disorder or drug or alcohol problem,” he explains.

Shulman, who counsels compulsive shoppers, shoplifters and hoarders, says many people describe shopping as a way of reducing stress or providing relief from anxiety rather than to get a high. However, he says the issue is complicated, and there are multiple reasons that drive people, including the following:

  • Low self-esteem and peer pressure.
  • Poor money management skills, such as delaying gratification, saving, and budgeting.
  • Feeling deprived or spoiled materially as a child.
  • Coming from a family that used things to express love or as a replacement for love, presence, and caring.
  • To cope with unresolved losses and other challenging changes in life.

A recent study from the University of Bergen revealed that shopping addiction is more prevalent in women and begins in late adolescence with it emerging into adulthood and decreasing with age.

The study also found that people who are extroverts are more at risk for developing the addiction because they tend to be social and sensation seeking, and therefore may use shopping for personal expression and to enhance appearance. Researchers stated that those with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem may also seek out shopping as a way to cope with their feelings. Though, compulsive shopping may be the cause of these, as well.

Want more? Check out the rest of the original feature article, 7 Signs You May Be a Shopping Addict, over at The Fix.