In 2021, Anita Anand (name changed), 56, felt frustrated as she looked at her bank balance. “I didn’t know where the money just evaporated. I swear I didn’t buy anything that was unnecessary,” she says. As an afterthought she adds, “Actually, I think I spent way too much on home decor, clothes, and kitchenware that month.” Anand is a Mumbai-based retired interior designer whose children are well-settled. She lives on her own and has plenty of spare time and nearly nothing much to do. Her inbox is full of promotional newsletters from plenty of e-commerce websites, further tempting her. A self-confessed shopaholic, Anand tried hard last year to control her impulse to shop online.
Just like her, there must have been many instances when you found yourself mindlessly browsing online, adding things to the cart, and then maybe removing them. At times you even checkout, and once the item arrives, you realise that it is either more expensive than what you could afford, or it is something you don’t need at all. The ‘Buyer’s Remorse’ kicks in but you are at ease because thanks to technology, you can return the item and claim a refund. Technology and digital media have made the process of shopping easy, and it’s easier than ever before to just spend money: it’s convenient, quick and private.
Understanding the urge: Sanjana Prasad, a trauma-informed counselling psychologist and psychotherapist based in Bengaluru, clarifies that the being a shopaholic is nothing new. “However,” she says, “Some of the key factors that are causing an increase in excessive shopping behaviours, maybe in the ease of access, freedom, and spending capacity.” In her opinion, we may be seeing a new problem, or a problem at an intense stage, but we're essentially still battling the same thing—a response to unaddressed mental issues manifesting in the form of shopping behaviours.
“Any urban Indian with access to a smartphone and internet becomes a potential candidate to fall under the vulnerable group. This does not mean that smartphones and the internet are the cause of shopaholism, it's just a perpetuating factor. People found other healthy/unhealthy ways to cope then as well, based on access to mental healthcare,” she says.
Prasad contends that shopaholism isn't an isolated problem, but a symptom that indicates a deeper malaise in the person. “It may be unhelpful to extinguish unhealthy shopping behaviours without addressing the root of the issue—ie, the secondary benefits or the immediate rewards the person gets through shopping.” Prasad adds that people that fall prey to it are usually those with undetected and untreated mental illness, or those who struggle with their mental health in general.
Causes and symptoms: Prasad says that people’s shopping behaviours can give an indication to what’s worrying them. She says that compulsive shoppers may generally feel a sense of discontentment with what they already own; may never feel satisfied with how much they own; or their satisfaction wears off quickly, to be replaced by a sense of disappointment and emptiness. “In general, they may shop during emotional highs and lows and not when there is a genuine need,” she says.
Nisha Sachdeva, a consultant clinical psychologist and psychotherapist based in Delhi shares some characteristic traits of a compulsive shopper. This may include low self-esteem, and emotional concerns like depression, anxiety, OCD, personality issues. Sachdeva says that such people may also have difficulty in controlling their impulses. Most people find it easy to do so, but a shopaholic might find it very hard to resist. Compulsively seeking out great deals and bargains especially of unneeded items might give a great sense of power and control over one's environment. She says that compulsive shoppers may also be fantasists: A shopaholic might have a rich fantasy life where he enjoys thinking about shopping for the items and the positive consequences of acquiring desired items. Fantasising can also provide an escape from the harsh realities of life.
Coping mechanisms: In Prasad’s opinion, since the common denominator is undetected mental illness or unresolved mental health issues, the obvious answer would be to look within. “For different people, based on their complex histories, there could be various reasons, and addressing them at the root is the easiest way to help mitigate excessive shopping behaviours. For those who haven't yet fallen prey to it, but may have the tendency to do so, they should check in with themselves mentally, just the way we do general health check-ups to make sure we're safe and healthy from time to time,” she says.
In Anand’s case, she realised that it was loneliness and a lack of activities to occupy herself, with that led her to shop mindlessly. To course-correct, she joined a few hobby classes, expanded her social circles and unsubscribed from the marketing emails. So, if you too find yourself suffering from an urge to compulsively shop, Sachdeva suggests you do the following:
Reflect: It can be helpful to address feelings of inadequacy, by doing things like working with a good therapist to help connect with one’s self worth.
Seek Help: If you suffer from anxiety or depression, it is important to get the right mental health treatment to help relieve the distress.
Impulse Control: Yoga or relaxing breathing techniques can be helpful for anxiety and impulse control.
Develop a new hobby: It can be helpful in taking care of the emptiness that shopping seems to be filling.
Be Social: Try to remain as socially connected as possible.
Unsubscribe and block marketing emails: It sets an external boundary and thus helps with the urge to buy.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist.