Sunday, February 4, 2007

Compulsive Buying Disorder: A Habit Gone Wild

A study recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry reveals that compulsive buying disorder affects more than one in twenty people in the U.S. Although it might sound harmless, this often-misunderstood condition can be very detrimental to one’s health and personal life. It is often associated with depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders and may in some cases lead to suicide. A mental disorder is defined as, “any clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome characterized by the presence of distressing symptoms, impairment of functioning, or significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or loss of freedom.” Hence, mental health professionals are considering its inclusion in the next edition of the DSM-IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, this issue continues to cause great controversy, on the one hand those suffering from the disorder are reporting feeling the above mentioned symptoms, yet, most unaffected individuals do not agree with including overspending issues in the next DSM-IV.

The “Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior” in the United States was a study conducted in the summer and spring of 2004. It consisted of a national, random-sample household telephone survey, including 2,513 adult participants. Participants were questioned about their buying attitudes, behaviors and their demographic and financial data. Dr. Lorrin M. Koran, author of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, feels that compulsive buying disorder fits the characteristics of a mental illness. The sufferer gets an irresistible and intrusive impulse to buy. “Kristi,” a person suffering the disorder says, “It’s just like something I feel like I have to do or I’ll literally panic and I’m in almost a trance when I do it.” This feeling often leads to shopping binges in which the person accumulates unnecessary items that later result in feelings of remorse, shame and guilt. “People don’t realize the extent of damage it does to the sufferer,” said Koran. It is difficult however, for the general public to accept that this is an uncontrollable problem. Jerrold Pollak, a psychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center, states, “It’s a societal and cultural issue that’s not taken seriously or seen as an issue. ‘Shop ‘till you drop’ is considered a cool thing to do.” In a materialistic society like ours, the factors contributing to compulsive buying disorder are vast.

One factor is the overpowering effect the media has on the population. According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of television each day (or 28 hours per week, or 2 months of nonstop television-watching per year). This includes corporate influence through commercials, subliminal advertising, and the television programs themselves. Rachel Bilson, actress in the highly viewed television show The OC, is shown to the right advertising a very costly brand. The main goal of commercials is to get people to purchase their products. Expert, Helga Dittmar, author of a study investigating the psychological roots of compulsive buying, published in the September 2005 issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, asserted that, “unrelenting pressure from advertising and the media are pushing people to spend more recklessly than ever before, and that spending is even easier now via 24-hour shopping channels and the Internet.” Unmistakably, there are those who are easily persuaded by these images and portrayals of materialistic products. Those trying to emulate celebrities and their possessions can develop serious health related problems such as poor eating habits due to the anxiety experienced while on a buying binge or extreme headaches when stressed once billing time arrives. Catherine Steinberg, a marital family therapist says, “compulsive shoppers often don’t feel good enough, so being dressed well and wearing lots of jewelry is used to enhance a weak self image.”

However, there is one major difference between celebrity figures and those on the other side of the television set, money. Undoubtedly, it would be more difficult for those with more capital to experience stress and remorse after overspending, considering the fact that capital is being replenished at a faster rate than it is being spent. Hence, this is where some of the controversy on making compulsive a disorder arises. There is no other mental disorder with monetary requirements or restrictions. A mental disorder transcends all racial and economic barriers and affects the rich and poor the same way. Of course, compulsive shopping disorder can affect the rich as well as the underprivileged, yet, it would take a lot longer for a negative impact to be felt. Dr. Koran’s study showed that, “households of young adults (ages 24-34 years) with incomes below $50,000 are the most affected by compulsive buying.” This information is quite obvious without extensive research, those who make less money are quickly affected by large amounts of spending.

Those who suffer from compulsive buying disorder have psychological issues that need to be carefully treated. There is therapy, counseling, and self-help groups such as Debtors Anonymous that seek to help those whose lives are unfortunately disrupted by this disorder. The consequences of overspending are vary harmful and one needs to examine at the real underlying cause for this behavior. The issue is complicated because although it fits the definition of a mental disorder, the effect is not equally distributed among all social classes. While mental heath professionals discuss the issue, those living with this disorder must learn to better control these invading impulses to spend.

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