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Retail Therapy?

Retail Therapy?

Can you buy happiness when you buy a pair of Prada shoes? Apparently yes, for some who must shop till they literally drop. Siu Lee and Koh Joh Ting of HealthAnswers checks out the real costs of flexing your plastic.

When Lisa James (not her real name) broke up with her boyfriend, she was all alone at a university abroad. Alone and friendless, she had no one to pour her heart out. All she had was money. Loads of it from a summer job, in fact. Soon, she was spending, spending and spending in glitzy boutiques and fancy restaurants to fill an awful empty space in her broken heart.

"On one of my shopping binges," she says, "I bought 31 pairs of shoes, 14 handbags, an entire wardrobe with the latest stuff to add to a whole shelf-load of books and knick-knacks. I also started buying expensive dinners for people I hardly knew so that they would listen to me. Oh, and I also spent hundreds on beauty products in the belief it would entice my ex back." Of course it didn't.

Her reasoning was that since she felt so miserable, she had a right to "spoil herself" by buying things she normally would think twice about. But her credit card balance went from black to red. "Even though I knew I didn't have enough money to last me through the year, I was still getting excited about buying the latest skincare range," she remembers. "For a few hours after I bought something, I was really happy".

The Dope On Shopping Till You Drop
Call it retail therapy, if you will. But compulsive behaviour is increasingly recognised as a problem as compulsive gambling, compulsive eating, compulsive drinking are.

A Healthanswers consultant who works in behavioural health services, says he has treated patients who shop compulsively. He says that there is a need to distinguish between two kinds of shopping. Firstly, people shop because they want to take advantage of sales. This is not a problem.

It is a problem, however, he says, if you shop for any of the three reasons below:

1) Because you are depressed
You feel that the world is grey, you feel bored and flat. Sufferers find that people are not friendly, and they will buy things indiscriminately if they can afford it. People in this group are usually women. Out of ten patients who want to control their shopping behaviour, six or seven would have been suffering from depression.

2) Because you are manic

You feel happy, abnormally happy. If you are well-to-do, you would be buying properties, shares, or 10 Gucci bags at a go. If you are not, you would be borrowing heavily from relatives and even loan sharks to pay for your purchases.

In some cases, the psychiatrist may have to ask the assets of the client be frozen to prevent them from further spending, and even ward them at hospital. Patients who shop because they are manic are rarer than those suffering from depression. Out of ten patients, only one would have a manic problem.

3) Because you are obsessive-compulsive
These people buy because they simply cannot resist buying. When they see an item that catches their eye, they will think about it at work, at rest, on the way home, all the time. They can only stop thinking about it when they buy it. If 10 items catch their fancy, they will buy all ten. These patients can account for two or three out of ten patients. They are often guilty about their behaviour but cannot stop it.

Can Anti-depressants Help?
Recently, it was reported that a pill has been developed to help compulsive shoppers. Developed by an unnamed pharmaceutical company, it is currently being tested on volunteers at Stanford University
in California, reports The Age.

The drug works like the well-known anti-depressant Prozac. It belongs to a class of drugs called SSRI's (for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.) They enhance the blood levels of serotonin, a chemical in your brain that is associated with regulating your mood and behaviour. If you have high levels of serotonin, you tend to be in better mood than if you have low levels of serotonin.

For 12 weeks, the participants in a research at Stanford University would take the antidepressant drug and keep a diary of how much time they spent shopping and how much money they would spend.

Dr Lorrin Koran, the chief investigator of the research and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, says that compulsive shopping can lead to financial crisis and impair marital relations.

"Most compulsive shoppers are women," she told WebMD . "And their biggest weakness is image-enhancing items like clothes, jewellery, and make-up. First, they have an irresistible impulse to shop. Then they enjoy a pleasurable release when they buy something. Ultimately, they feel a sense of remorse because they really didn't want to do it."

This cycle is similar to what bulimics go through. Bulimics find pleasure in eating large and copious amounts of food, and then induce vomiting to prevent weight gain. While they may experience feelings of pleasure and being in control during the purging process, they often end up feeling guilty, disgusted and even depressed with their habits. This phenomenon has been noted as far back in 1992 in the Journal Of Clinical Psychiatry. Subjects showed an improvement whether they were treated with anti-depressants or sugar pills. In both cases the subjects had to keep diaries and have regular meetings with researchers. The improvement occurred in two out of three subjects who had been binge-shoppers. This suggests that patients can control their impulse to shop if they are encouraged, or given attention or advice to help them overcome it.

There are no figures on how many people in Australia are compulsive shoppers.

All The Glitters Is Not Gold
The kinds of patients who usually complain about their shopping behaviours are those aged between 18 and 30.

The typical case that our consultant sees in his clinic is a woman who is in her middle-age. Her children are grown-up and have no need of her constant attention, and she often has a marital problem with her husband. He has had patients who have spent hundreds of thousands in a single day in shopping centres, buying up goods like luxury bags and jewellery for themselves. "They won't buy for friends. As they are depressed, they always buy for themselves."

But if she is less well off, she may take out her entire savings of a few thousand dollars and spend. She would then try to get more money from her husband, exacerbating her marital problems.

All problem shoppers shop for emotional release, which is only momentary. Treatment requires a combination of counselling and medication. A patient has the best chance if there is family support for her condition.

"The rich compulsive shopper is probably lonelier than the poorer one. I feel sad when a patient says that she wishes she has old friends back. Friends are important for both your mental and physical health. It's only real friends who will go visit you when you are suffering from cancer. If you have a good friend now, treasure her."

Facing Your Problems
The way to deal with compulsion is firstly to recognise it as a problem.

In Lisa's case the problem was highlighted when her parents came to visit. After getting angry with her for wasting money, they started talking to her about how she felt about her new environment. She realised she had been quite miserable, not just about breaking up with her boyfriend, but also having to cope with being in a strange country away from her friends and family.

"At home, I would've handled it by seeing friends and going out a lot more. At university it was difficult as I hadn't had time to make that many friends." Also, her family support network was far away. There was also pride involved. She didn't want her parents to worry about her thinking she couldn't cope without them.

"Once I realised that I missed my home life and that shopping was just a reaction to that, I started making more of an effort with other people," she says. "I also started studying really hard which made me feel good about myself." Now that kind of reinforcement is the healthiest kind. Handbags and moisturiser don't come close.

Ultimately, you want to be in control of your spending, and not vice versa. Don't fall prey to that plastic.

How do you know you have a compulsive buying habit?
icon Do you ritualise your buying behaviour?
icon Do you feel jittery and ill at ease if you do not buy the item?
icon Do you regret what you buy?
icon Do you spend more than you can spare?
icon Is your spending getting in the way of your personal relationships at home and at work?

Date reviewed: 16 June 2000

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