Learn about what shopping addiction has in common with substance addiction, how substance use affects shopping addiction, and how treatment for co-occurring shopping and substance addictions works.

Shopping addiction and substance abuse are connected in many ways. The two frequently occur together; a significant number of people with a shopping addiction have a co-occurring substance use disorder. People sometimes develop process addictions like compulsive shopping disorder in the active or early recovery phases of substance addiction.

One of the reasons these disorders commonly co-occur is that they have similar causes. They also share patterns of development and respond to similar interventions. Understanding the similarities and differences between process and substance addictions can help people who have both kinds of addiction establish effective treatment plans and make decisions that promote recovery.

Effects of Drug Abuse on Shopping Behaviors

Research shows that enjoyment, stress, low self-esteem and negative emotional states are among the factors that can lead to developing a shopping addiction. In other words, people who enjoy shopping are more likely to pursue it as a way to manage uncomfortable feelings and to become addicted to the positive feelings associated with shopping.

“Enjoyment” can have a special meaning for people with a shopping addiction. People who are addicted to shopping often enjoy making purchases more than they enjoy having or using the items they buy, especially when an item is rare or the price makes it a bargain. Seeking the dopamine rush associated with buying things can lead to a form of behavioral tolerance in which a person requires longer, more expensive or higher-risk shopping experiences to feel satisfied.

For some people, this leads to more intensive and frequent shopping. Others start to seek additional ways to heighten the experience of shopping, including using substances and shopping while high. Substance use can induce euphoric feelings, lower inhibitions and intensify risk-seeking behavior, making shopping more thrilling and enjoyable.

There are many negative consequences of combining substance use and compulsive shopping. Driving from store to store while under the influence of a substance increases the risk of automobile accidents. Reduced inhibitions can cause people to spend more, potentially increasing their debt and causing existing financial problems to worsen. The combined effects of substance use and overspending can intensify conflicts with loved ones and can cause relationships to end.

Excessive use of substances with dissociative effects can cause people to experience dissociative states including short-term amnesia. In these states, often called “blackouts,” people lose awareness of what they are doing and are unable to remember entire spans of time. People with co-occurring shopping and substance addictions sometimes go online shopping or go out shopping during a blackout and make purchases they are not fully aware of making. A period of these blackout purchases can lead to severe credit card debt and even to bankruptcy.

Similarities Between Shopping Addiction and Substance Addiction

Research on how shopping addiction affects the brain shows that compulsive shopping can cause surges of dopamine and hyperactivity in the brain’s reward system. Substance use has the same effects on the brain. These systems reinforce behavior and cause cravings that drive people to repeat certain actions. One of the ways they reinforce behavior is inducing euphoria, including the shopping high people with shopping addictions feel when they make a purchase.

One study found that dopamine agonist drugs, or drugs that activate dopamine receptors in the brain, can trigger the onset of impulse control disorders like compulsive spending. This finding confirms theories that the cycle of compulsive behavior associated with shopping addiction is driven by peaks and drops in dopamine levels. Repeated surges can deplete dopamine levels, causing people to experience depression, anxiety and other psychological withdrawal symptoms.

One of the criteria for substance use disorders is that people continue using substances in spite of negative psychological, physical and social effects. Behavioral or process addictions follow a similar pattern. In the early stages of a shopping addiction, a person continues to shop despite consequences like spending more than intended or feeling guilty. As the shopping addiction progresses, a person continues to shop even as negative consequences intensify.

At its most severe, shopping addiction can lead to legal problems like divorce and bankruptcy. This behavior is the same pattern of escalation that often characterizes substance use disorders, in which people continue using substances despite serious social, legal or health problems.

Statistics on Shopping Addiction and Substance Abuse

Shopping addiction statistics show that 6 percent of people in the United States struggle with compulsive shopping. One study found that the urge to shop was so strong that people bought something 74 percent of the times they experienced an urge to buy. Another study found that people with a shopping addiction were unable to resist the compulsion to make a purchase 92 percent of the time they had the opportunity to do so. These results show that cravings related to shopping addiction can cause people to feel just as out of control as cravings related to substance addiction.

The rates of co-occurring disorders for people who have shopping addiction are high. From 21 to 100 percent of people with shopping addiction have a mood disorder, while 41 to 80 percent have an anxiety disorder and 21 to 46 percent have a substance use disorder. One study found that people with shopping addiction were significantly more likely to have generalized anxiety or major depressive disorders.

Treating Shopping Addiction and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders

Fortunately, both shopping and substance addiction respond to treatment and can be overcome. Researchers found that different kinds of individual therapy can successfully treat shopping addiction and that group cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective shopping addiction treatment.

The reason group treatment is effective for treating shopping addiction may be the same reason it is often used to treat substance addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups changed how substance use disorders were treated and remain powerful sources of help for people struggling with addiction. Treatment groups combine methods derived from these pioneering groups with approaches based on clinical theory and research.

In group therapy, people not only learn of and apply a therapeutic method, but they can learn from one another’s life experiences. In interactions with other group members, they can gain insight into the way addiction shapes thinking and patterns of emotional reactivity. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of group therapy is the extent to which participants can help people overcome feelings of alienation, shame and loneliness.

While some individual therapists run therapy groups, they are common within inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment programs. These facilities usually offer them as part of a suite of services that is also likely to include individual therapy, complementary therapies, support groups and medication management. This integrated treatment approach is the most effective way to treat co-occurring behavioral health conditions.

The Recovery Village operates treatment facilities across the United States that offer integrated treatment for people who have substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions. If you are struggling with co-occurring disorders, like substance and shopping addictions, and want to learn more about treatment, contact The Recovery Village. A representative can discuss treatment options with you and help you find one that meets your needs.

Thomas Christiansen
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
Stephanie Hairston
Medically Reviewed By – Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Stephanie Hairston received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and English from Pomona College and her Master of Social Work degree from New York University. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.