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Meditation can help shopaholics

03 January 2014

Practising mindfulness has had a big impact on addicts, reports Alison Armstrong


Driven? Shoppers in central London on Boxing Day

Driven? Shoppers in central London on Boxing Day

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 consumption.

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 March 2013).

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 disorder.

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 depression).

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).

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