Photo by Jess Ivy

“I would rather have a new Louis Vuitton than have sex,” says Heather on the first episode of the new reality TV show “My Shopping Addiction.” The camera crew follows Heather into her house, where she shows off rooms full of thousand-dollar sequined blouses and a blazer Rihanna once wore.

Pop culture seems to love a good shopping addict (think the hit movie “Confessions of a Shopaholic”), but in reality, compulsive buying disorder is a serious and often debilitating problemA review of compulsive buying disorder. Black, D.W. Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, IA. World Psychiatry 2007;6(1):14-8.. Compulsive shopping behaviors only tend to get worse around the holidays, as even those without a disorder start elbowing their way through glitzy department stores in hopes of finding the perfect iPad or pair of boots. But sprinting to take advantage of a last-minute sweater sale doesn’t necessarily mean we’re addicted.

Shop ‘Til We Drop — Why It Matters

Compulsive buying disorder is characterized by excessive thoughts about shopping and buying behavior that leads to some kind of distressA review of compulsive buying disorder. Black, D.W. Department of Psychiatry, University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, IA. World Psychiatry 2007;6(1):14-8.. It’s hard to say when a love of shopping becomes a full-blown disorder, but in general, trouble starts when a shopping habit causes problems related to work or family relationships. In some extreme cases, a shopping addiction can even lead to bankruptcy, though compulsive buying can cause problems way beyond the checkbook, like issues with significant others, parents, and bosses.

Shopping addictions are more common than we might think. The disorder exists across the globe, though mostly in developed nations. In the U.S., about six percent of adults exhibit compulsive buying behavior. While up to 80 percent of these addicts are women, people of any gender can have shopping problems.

Some researchers speculate the main root of shopping addictions is impulsiveness, though there’s a range of personal factors that can drive someone to a non-stop shopping spree. Like most psychological issues, the reason behind compulsive buying behavior ultimately depends on the individual. But according to Dr. Donald Black, a psychiatrist and an expert on compulsive buying behavior, some people shop to relieve symptoms of depression or anxiety. In other cases it’s because they felt deprived as children and now want to spend their money on living extravagantly. Unfortunately, certain aspects of modern life can make shopping addictions even more problematic.

Shopper’s Paradise — The Answer/Debate

Once upon a time, compulsive shoppers were limited to the cash registers at their favorite department stores — but the emergence of online shopping and mobile devices has made it possible to feed an addiction pretty much anytime, anywhere. Still, Black says most compulsive shoppers prefer the live action: “They enjoy the actual experience of getting into the store, touching the items, trying things on. It’s a complete experience for them.”

Luckily, there are certain treatments that can help compulsive shoppers overcome their addiction. Depending on the particular issue, shopaholics might benefit from individual therapy, group therapy, and certain 12-step programs. Dr. April Lane Benson, PhD, a psychologist and the author of To Buy Or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, approaches treatments by first helping clients figure out the triggers for their compulsive buying behavior. Then they discuss other ways to meet basic needs for things like affection and self-esteem — that don’t involve maxing out any credit cards. Some research also suggests certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, might help treat compulsive shopping behaviorCitalopram for compulsive shopping disorder: an open-label study followed by double-blind discontinuation. Koran, L.M., Chuong, H.W., Bullock, K.D., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University Medical Center, Calif. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 2003;64(7):793-8..

Above all, Black says it’s important to realize how serious compulsive buying disorder can be. While some movies and TV shows tend to sensationalize the issue, “for people who truly have this disorder, it can be disabling.”

Special thanks to Dr. Donald Black and Dr. April Lane Benson for their help with this article.

Have you ever suffered from a shopping addiction? Share in the comments below or tweet the author directly @ShanaDLebowitz.