Buying Relief from Compulsive Shopping

March/April 2001

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Imelda Marcos and Jackie Kennedy may have suffered from it. Flaubert's fictional Madame Bovary showed all the symptoms. But compulsive shopping is more than conspicuous consumption by the wealthy or bourgeois. It is a disorder, described by one specialist as a hunting-and-gathering impulse "gone amuck" that can afflict both rich and poor.

Whether they're buying diamonds or second-hand clothing, compulsive shoppers fill their carts with things they don't need, use or care about; sometimes they never even remove the purchases from the packaging. And the consequences are serious, according to Lorrin Koran, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Medical School and director of Stanford's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic. Some of his patients have spent their way into a $60,000 hole, taken out second mortgages on their homes, declared bankruptcy or gotten divorced as a result of their behavior.

What distinguishes those who love to shop from those with a shopping disorder? The origins of compulsive shopping are biological and cultural, says Koran. People with the disorder feel anxious before they shop; shopping itself gives them a sense of exhilaration, pleasure or control. The regret and guilt -- plus the emotional or financial problems -- come later.

Compulsive shoppers, says Koran, find themselves preoccupied by irrational impulses they cannot resist. They may wonder what's new at the mall, for example; or if they hear about a new fashion, they may buy it in every available color, even colors they dislike. While spouses may resort to hiding car keys to prevent shopping splurges, addicted shoppers will find a way to shop when no one is looking -- and they'll hide the evidence, stashing the goods in secret places.

Until recently, there were few treatment options in the United States for the roughly 2 to 8 percent of adults who suffer from impulse control disorders that include hair pulling, pathological gambling, kleptomania, pyromania and compulsive sexual behaviors.

But results from a pilot study at Stanford that began in December 1999 suggest there may be hope for compulsive shoppers. So far, 80 percent of the subjects in the study who took Celexa -- an antidepressant similar to Prozac that adjusts serotonin levels that may be out of balance -- have reported spending less time thinking about or engaged in buying things than they did before. Individuals whose lives previously had been turned upside down by their shopping habits "absolutely stopped shopping," Koran says. "They totally lost interest; they threw out catalogs; they could go to the mall and not buy anything."

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