At the annual American Psychiatric Association convention, an illness surfaced under the heading of obsessive compulsive disorder: compulsive shopping.
According to Dr. Lorrin Koran of Stanford University, as many as eight percent of all Americans might be compulsive shoppers and approximately 90 percent of them are women.
Koran's Stanford study suggests that the illness may be treatable with a common anti-depressant (SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).
'What Did I Buy?'
"I have been out of control with my spending compulsion for about 10 years," one woman who suffers from compulsive shopping said. "Many times, I would come home and think "What did I buy?" I spent $125 and what did I buy? And couldn't remember a single thing."
Koran, the study's head researcher, reasoned that compulsive shopping is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder, an illness that drives people to do what they do not want to do. Koran proposed that anti-depressants might be useful for out-of-control shoppers.
The majority of patients in the study, some of whom had up to $40,000 in unpaid debt, showed great results after using 20 to 60 milligrams of anti-depressants a day. Eighty percent of them were classified as "responders" to the treatment, reporting dramatic decreases in their incidences of compulsive shopping.
A Cure for Shopping Fever?
Even at a one-year follow-up, the formerly fanatical shoppers reported that the time spent buying and obsessing about shopping had decreased dramatically. Longer term follow-up will determine if the participants need to be in the study indefinitely.
Compulsive shoppers can experience similar emotions as drug users. They feel euphoric when they buy and spend and it's a way to relieve mounting tension and anxiety for them. But those feelings crash after the shopping spree is over, and guilt sets in.
Then the frenetic shoppers head back to the stores for even bigger shopping highs. It seems to be a phenomenon of people in their 30s and 40s, but it may start in the teen years, experts say.
Excessive shopping has led some people into bankruptcy, and caused them to lose their jobs and families. And some shopping addicts have even sued their credit card companies for giving them cards with open credit limits.
Dr. Jack Gorman, a Columbia University professor who is one of the country's leading experts on obsessive-compulsive disorder, says compulsive shopping is a matter of degree.
As is the case with many psychiatric illnesses, the dividing line comes when the behavior interferes with the person's ability to live their life normally, Gorman says. Usually, compulsive shoppers recognize that they don't need the items they buy, but they can't stop shopping.
Gorman couldn't say exactly why most compulsive shoppers are women, but says that females shop more in general, and anxiety disorders are more common in women.
According to Gorman, most experts agree that "cognitive behavioral therapy," in combination with drugs, is necessary. That type of therapy focuses on actual symptoms and trains people to stop acting compulsively, Gorman says.