Shop-Till-You-Drop Season Scary for Some

Holidays are especially difficult for compulsive shoppers, experts say

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By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Nov. 24, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly everyone gets into the spirit of shopping during the holiday season, and folks will be grabbing their credit cards and checkbooks Friday as the mad rush to the stores begins.

For most, spending a bit beyond your means sometimes doesn't land you in serious trouble. But for one in 20 American adults, shopping is no laughing matter, and the holiday season can be pure torture. That's the number of people affected, experts say, by a compulsive need to shop and buy.

"It is difficult all year long [for compulsive shoppers]," said Dr. Lorrin M. Koran, an emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who has studied the topic intensively. "[But] some compulsive shoppers find the holiday, with the emphasis on advertising, buying things, and the supposed joys of material possessions, more trying than the rest of the year."

Some experts, including Koran, believe that compulsive buying should be classified as a mental disorder and officially included in a guidebook for psychological and psychiatric treatment used worldwide, called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In his study of more than 2,500 adults, he found that 6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men were compulsive buyers.

If you frequently buy things you don't need and can't afford, go on buying binges and bring home things you then have no interest in, or your shopping behavior is causing problems with family, work or finances, you may have a problem, Koran said.

During the holidays, those urges are even harder to ignore. "People can feel obliged to give," Koran said.

Added April Lane Benson, a psychologist in private practice in New York City: "People believe that how much they spend correlates with how much they care." She is founder of a Web site devoted to "stopping over-shopping."

A materialistic attitude, plus poor self-image, can also fuel the tendency to buy too much, Benson said. Other common triggers, according to Koran: depression, anxiety, boredom and anger.

However, you can curb your compulsive buying, even in this "shop-till-you-drop" season, Koran and Benson agreed. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Plan well in advance -- that would mean right now -- how you will avoid compulsive shopping over the holidays, Benson said. That can involve an attitude adjustment. "Research shows that experiences lead to more satisfaction than material goods," she said. Instead of buying your loved ones something, give your expertise, she suggested. Give a friend or relative a coupon good for five hours of computer counseling, a photography session at their child's next birthday party, or help with yard work.
  • If you get the urge to shop, think about why you are having it. "What is it you are needing?" Benson asked. For instance, if you're feeling inadequate and think you'll go to the mall and buy yourself a great new outfit -- plus buy two or three more gifts than you had planned to get for each person on your list -- figure out another way to feel better about yourself. "Is there something nice you can do for someone?" she asked.
  • Keep track of the triggers that lead you to shop compulsively, Koran suggested. For instance, if you head to the stores when you are feeling low, think about developing an alternative plan, something that will make you feel better without shopping. That might mean a workout, reading a book, or taking a bubble bath.
  • When you go shopping for holiday gifts, Koran said, "Only go shopping with a trusted friend or relative who is instructed to prevent impulsive purchases." Take a list and stick to it.
  • "Recognize that it truly is the thought that counts, not the size of the gift," Koran said.

More information

To learn more about compulsive shopping, head to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.

SOURCES: Lorrin Koran, M.D., emeritus professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.; April Lane Benson, Ph.D., psychologist, private practice, New York City

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