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Gloria Arenson

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Compulsive Spending is No Joke
by Gloria Arenson   
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Last edited: Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Posted: Wednesday, November 24, 2010

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Although we joke that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, shopaholics suffer from a major psychological problem. Compulsive spending and debting can lead to bankruptcy and ruined lives.

Although we joke that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, shopaholics suffer from a major psychological problem. Compulsive spending and debting can lead to bankruptcy and ruined lives. I have counseled spenders who have embezzled money to pay for their excesses. This is no laughing matter.



Most of us occasionally overindulge and buy something that costs more than we would usually spend, but only from time to time. Compulsive spenders find the urge overpowering and frequent. The need to shop or spend is a compulsion.




My definition of compulsion is: if you can't control when you start or when you stop a behavior you have a problem. A common characteristic of "shopaholics" is that they buy things and never take the price tags off or wear them. Some people don't even take their purchases out of the bag. That is because it is not about things! Spending is a way to medicate unhappiness, fear, anger and low self-esteem. It is an addiction.



You may wonder what creates the urge to splurge. Some people learn to overspend when someone close to them is a compulsive spender who encourages them to do the same. Many go shopping when they are stressed or bored. Once they find themselves in a setting like a mall, that is filled with exciting temptations, it is very easy to give in.



When the urge takes over shopaholics forget that that their plastic credit card is not play money. Like Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind," they tell themselves that they will worry about their debt tomorrow.



Although we think that women are shopaholics, men are too. Men buy more of the big toys like cars and boats, but they also overspend on clothing and tools. Compulsive spenders are all ages and from all economic strata. One of my clients was a student who had very little money, so she binged at thrift stores. Many alcoholics and overeaters turn to spending as another way to soothe their inner pain when they give up alcohol or sugar.




Compulsive spenders buy things to make themselves feel better; use pleasure to mask the pain of life. Compulsive debtors appear to do the same thing, however there is a hidden agenda to their spending. They spend in order to use up their money because they don’t think that they deserve success, wealth, or love, but they may be unaware of it. 




Occasionally I see someone who escalates her behavior unconsciously in the hope of getting caught so she can get help. Others live lives that are filled with so much pain and dysfunction that they are oblivious to the consequences. When the urge takes over it is as if they are in a trance. They have to feed the hungry place inside, although things can never really fill that emptiness. 



The reason that shopaholics can't control their impulses begins in the brain. Stress creates an imbalance between two important brain chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine has to do with pleasure. When dopamine is stimulated it helps us get into action to achieve our goals. Once we have done that, the serotonin rises and gives us a feeling of satisfaction. Then we move on to something else.


However, when we are very stressed, either physically or emotionally, the serotonin can’t always rise enough to offset the drive of the dopamine. It keeps firing, "I want it. I want it." That is what happens in a spending binge. A woman may like a certain sweater and then buy it in every color it comes in before she stops. 



EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) is a new, fast acting, often permanent, treatment for life problems. It is best described as acupressure for the emotions. EFT helps people release negative feelings and cravings by treating the energy meridians in the body. You only need to stimulate eight energy points, mostly on the face, by tapping or touching them. The stimulation goes to the brain and releases stress, calms emotions, and helps the thinking part of the brain to say, "No" to cravings.



Friends and families of compulsive spenders and debtors usually stand by in despair as they see their loved ones fritter away money, deplete savings, and build up huge debt. The most important advice I them is what not to do. Don't threaten, punish, cover up for, or try to bribe the spender into changing. It simply won’t work. If you cut up their credit cards they already know the number by heart! Some have credit cards that you don’t even know exist. Compulsive spenders are like alcoholics. They spend when they are upset. They will lie and cheat in order to be free to spend. The best thing you can do is to understand that they are not bad or stupid people. They are people who are in a lot of emotional pain. Encourage them to find help for their problems. Debtors Anonymous is a good place to start.













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