Writing on an eating disorders message board, Kristi (not her real name) gives a compelling account of another addiction:

Last night I went to three different stores and spent several hundred dollars in, oh, an hour or so. What did I buy? I have no idea. Lots of clothes. Do I need any clothes? No. I still have shopping bags laying on the floor from my last shopping trip that I haven’t even opened. It’s just like something I feel like I have to do or I’ll literally panic and I’m in almost a trance when I do it. Then I get home and throw the bags on the floor and they stay there until I decide I want to see what’s in them. Last night was like a shopping binge. Just like a food binge or an alcohol binge. I think it serves the same purpose for me. I was completely numbed out when I was buying all this stuff. I have maxed out two Mastercards and I’m well on my way with another. I’m in so much debt it’s not even funny. So, I’m doing well with my eating disorder and drinking right now, but as you can see I’m far from OK. I still need an addiction. Why does it always have to be something? I’m also getting ready to give up all my credit cards to a consumer credit agency, so I hope that will help. Otherwise, I’ll be in even worse trouble bouncing hot checks everywhere.

By whatever name — compulsive shopping, shopping disorder or shopping addiction — Kristi is describing a type of craving that is causing serious problems in her life.

She could be talking about an addiction to alcohol or gambling or sex, says Jerrold Pollak, Ph.D., a psychologist with Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, N.H. “Compulsive shopping is not a well-defined disorder, and it’s not a stand-alone condition. It’s usually linked to other problems such as depression, anxiety or self-esteem issues.”

Binge Shopping

Just as Kristi is trying to overcome an eating disorder and drinking problem, shopping is often only one addiction a person is battling.

“It’s not unusual for a person to have several addictions, and one gets worse when another seems to be getting better,” said Tom Horvath, Ph.D., author of “Sex, Drugs, Gambling and Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions.”

The behavior itself, Pollak says, seems to serve to provide relief for depression or anxiety or to bolster self-esteem. In that regard, out-of-control shopping is like a lot of other conditions and can serve as a psychological defense.

“It has the same trajectory cycle as other addictive behaviors. An urge builds to the point that a person gives into it. The activity itself may offer a rush of euphoria. Then comes the crash and remorse, accompanied by a great deal of shame and guilt,” said Pollak, who has treated a number of compulsive spenders. Compulsive shopping may have a biochemical component, Pollak suggests. And one of the first things that needs to occur is a screening for bipolar disorder because excessive spending often is seen in the manic or hypomanic phase of that disorder. However, most compulsive spenders do not have this condition.

Who Is a Compulsive Shopper?

It is s believed that women are more affected by the disorder. However, Pollak points out that men are less likely to join research efforts or acknowledge such problems. In broad categories, women generally buy cosmetics, clothing and jewelry, while men tend to purchase electronics or sports equipment. Some compulsive shoppers buy only certain items. Pollak recalls a patient who was obsessed with purchasing movie promotional items, for example.

“To look at the person, you would have no idea they have a problem,” said Catherine Steinberg, M.A., M.F.T., a marriage and family therapist who facilitates groups for compulsive shoppers in Guilford, Conn. “They tend to be higher energy and generally don’t appear to be depressed.”

But underneath that exterior is someone who, she says, often doesn’t feel good enough, so being dressed well and wearing lots of jewelry is used to enhance a weak self-image.

“Some people,” Steinberg said, “don’t have a lot going on in their lives, so shopping is a way to fill time. Or looking for bargain buys becomes a form of excitement for them. Some women will track prices for months. This is an adventure for them and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they finally purchase something at a rock-bottom price.”