AT THIS time of year, there seems to be a cultural obsession
with shopping. First, we were buying for Christmas; now, we are
assaulted with the January sales. For most of us, once this season
has passed, we return to a more normal level of day-to-day
But not all of us: there is a portion of the population
(believed to be about 5.5 per cent) for whom shopping and buying is
an addiction. The media have displayed "shopaholics" as a joke, but
the reality is that this often hidden condition is wreaking havoc
on lives and families. In seeking to understand and treat oniomania
(to give it its correct name), I have tried using mindfulness,
which encourages living in the present moment (Faith, 8 February-28
It is used as a secular practice, although most religions have
some kind of reference to living in the present moment, and have
practices to support this.
As part of a research project, I ran a trial of an eight-week
mindfulness-based stress-reduction course for oniomaniacs. It
encouraged participants to be aware of what was occurring in each
passing moment, in their minds, emotions, and bodies, and involves
the daily practice of meditation.
There were three core practices. Participants were encouraged to
experience their bodies as they were rather than wish that their
bodies were different. They were taught to experience emotions as
passing physiological and feeling states. And it was suggested that
they observe their thoughts as mental events rather than as a
reflection of facts.
WE ALL have to buy things to remain in good physiological and
psychological health. But the rate and scale of buying in Western
developed nations is far beyond that of satisfying basic needs. We
frequently buy clothes that rarely get worn, and food that ends up
being thrown away.
Function is one obvious driver of this process: we buy a bag
because we need to carry things. But, in psychological terms, there
are thought to be two other related drivers. One is emotional, and
suggests that consumption can feel good. So the shopping
environment - the touching, trying on, and excitement - are all
factors that motivate us to buy.
The second driver is related to a sense of self: the goods that
we buy communicate something about us, and provide us with a sense
of identity. So, yes, we buy a bag to carry things, but we do not
all buy the same bag. Some buy a rucksack perhaps to communicate
subconsciously that they are active people; others buy
designer-labelled bags, to let others know that they are people of
wealth and status; and so on.
This motivation to buy is not wrong, or necessarily
pathological: for example, we know from anthropological studies
that tribal chiefs communicate status by what they wear and own -
this is a common human behaviour.
Shopping addiction appears to affect more women than men, and
tends to begin when people are young adults. There are several
characteristics that can help us to recognise it. First,
individuals experience a constant and urgent desire to buy things,
or to be in shops. They also frequently lose control of their
buying, and continue with the buying behaviour despite the negative
consequences, which can include family upset, debt, and ill-health.
Shopping addiction frequently exists alongside other mental-health
conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive
The people in this study described shopping addiction in
polarising terms. On the one hand, being in the shops is "like
being in a Disney world, where everything sparkles"; they talked of
the "high" from buying. But, on the other hand, they described the
shame, the isolation, and the stress about being found out; the
debt, and the feeling of being unable to change.
LEARNING mindfulness was challenging for the shopaholics on the
project, partly because an awareness of the present moment was
something that they had spent years trying to avoid. Shopping had
first been established in their lives as a coping strategy - to
avoid negative feelings, to generate positive feelings, and to
build a sense of identity. So, in deliberately experiencing the
present moment, they were turning towards what felt difficult in
their thoughts, emotions, and bodies.
With gentle perseverance, however, the ability to live in the
present became easier for them, and there was a recognition that
when they were simply experiencing what was present in each moment,
they were not worrying about the future (which provokes anxiety),
nor were they ruminating on the past (which is symptomatic of
In terms of shopping, there was a dramatic change. They had
greater awareness of the urge to shop, and could simply experience
it as a mental and behavioural pattern which did not need to be
indulged. They deconstructed advertising, and were no longer drawn
in by unrealistic messages; they found other areas of their life
that provided alternative sources of positive feelings; they had a
stronger sense of who they were, and therefore what they really
needed to buy.
THIS study suggests that mindfulness can offer hope to those
living with oniomania. It can offer an option that perhaps is
unconventional, and is at times tough, but one that involves no
drugs, and only positive side effects, and brings 2500 years of
wisdom to a modern problem.
So, as we shop for bargains in the sales, and whenever we notice
any anxiety around our purchases, it is worth remembering that
there are millions of people where the seemingly harmless activity
of shopping has become an addiction, and to offer some hope that
they will find help in guided meditation.
Dr Alison Armstrong runs a mindfulness teaching, research,
and consultancy service (www.presentminds.org).