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In the lead up to Black Friday 2023, Priory addiction specialist helps to unwrap the reasons why we shop, and shop – and how to stop
A leading addiction expert working at Priory – the UK’s leading provider of mental health services – is calling for greater awareness of just how damaging a ‘shopping addiction’ can be, urging those who feel the compulsion to shop to excess to take steps in recognising the key triggers, including the imminent Black Friday (November 24th).
Pamela Roberts, Addiction Programme Manager at the Priory Hospital in Woking, explains: “Shopping addiction – also known as oniomania – can have a devastating impact on individual with a ripple effect often felt across families, children, friends or even colleagues.
“People with oniomania feel completely ruled by the compulsion to ‘shop and spend’ – either for themselves, or by excessive gifting to others. The time – let alone the emotional stress – involved in online searching, social media scrolling, visiting shops, juggling credit card bills, hiding purchases from family can cause severe disruption. So, it’s little surprise that the run-up to Christmas is one of the most challenging and difficult times.
“And despite Christmas making this ‘upsurge in shopping’ seemingly acceptable and fun, compulsive buying is not a trivial issue and should not be dismissed as ‘retail therapy’. It is a serious form of addiction which can can lead to serious debt, dysfunctional family life, and neglected and / or over-indulged children. It’s a problem that exists on an alarming scale with compulsive spending is believed to affect 8-16% of the UK population.”
This year, due to the financial pressures that many families and individuals find themselves in due to the crippling cost of living crisis and spiking energy costs, online spending on Black Friday is expected to be down by 2% year on year, according the IMRG trade body.
Yet for those affected by compulsive buying and so-called ‘shopping addiction, the urge to pick up a perceived bargain amid persuasive and often very clever marketing hype can become overwhelming, whatever their financial situation.
Pamela explains, “Shopping is known to have a tangible effect on the brain; research shows that the chemical dopamine surges when anticipating a new purchase.
For some people, this “pleasure” rapidly declines, sometimes as soon as they’ve clicked to make a purchase and they need to repeat the process to experience the same “high”.
“The increase of dopamine can conjure up powerful feelings of reward and motivation. This usually remains balanced by self-control and practical financial considerations but if the process gets out of balance, and people become addicted to the pleasure sensation of spending, this can turn into a full-blown shopping addiction.”
Pamela says; “Any addiction is a way of coping with emotions, so shopping for some people is a way to avoid confronting negative or uncomfortable feelings such as boredom, stress and anxiety. In the online age, with many people having smartphone access, speed scrolling and “click & buy” can be an irresistible distraction from the working day and other family or relationship problems, with a response to stress being “treat yourself, buy something.”
And, to suggest it’s a “female” problem, characterised comedically as the stereotypical ‘shopaholic’ is an unhelpful and outdated cliché. All genders can be adversely affected by the need to mask emotion by a cycle of overspending, whatever the retail sector.”
The most important step is recognising and accepting that you have a problem, before seeking help for a suspected addiction. During treatment – a combination of psychology, talking therapy and sometimes medication – patients can identify any deeper psychological problems that may be influencing their behaviour.
Of course, Black Friday for most people is not a problem with the same to be said for other spending in the run-up to the festivities, followed by the sales. But for the shopping addict, it’s different, says Pamela: “All rationale and reason around over-spending are overlooked for the short-term gain, ignoring the longer-term consequences.”
She adds; “When dealing with alcohol or substance addiction, our approach may involve abstinence. It’s like locking a lion in a cage and throwing away the key. But with an addiction such as oniomania, you have to keep the lion safely in its cage, so to speak and every so often, take it out and restore it safely afterwards.
“Implementing abstinence from a shopping addiction can’t feasibly mean never shopping again, but it does mean establishing a plan to remain abstinent from addictive patterns.
“For those who are vulnerable to emotional purchasing, the transient ‘buzz’ from buying can be hard to resist but by working together in therapy, we really can support people as they identity their triggers and how best to navigate and avoid the marketing ploys, whether Black Friday or the January sales.”