Compulsive Buying Disorder: Causes and Treatments

Compulsive buying is defined as chronic repetitive purchasing that becomes a response to negative events or feelings, and it may become very difficult to stop and ultimately result in harmful consequences.

Negative Emotions and Compulsive Buying Disorder


This disorder occurs primarily in women, with a usual age of onset between 18 and 30 years. The problem has been described both in North America and Europe, and probably occurs in most industrialized societies.


Research studies have shown that people are more likely to buy when experiencing negative emotions such as anger, loneliness, frustration, hurt feelings, or irritability. Furthermore, during the buying episodes, people will experience more positive emotion and less negative emotion. They also experience release of tension and gratification while buying.


In general, participants in research studies reported negative emotions as the most common antecedents to compulsive buying, and euphoria or relief from the negative emotions as the most common consequence of compulsive buying.


Childhood Trauma and Compulsive Buying Disorder


Other than negative events and feelings, some researchers say that childhood trauma also causes compulsive buying disorder in adults.


In a 2013 research report, researchers say they recruited 370 female outpatients to examine the relationship between childhood trauma and adulthood compulsive buying. The five types of childhood trauma researchers examined are witnessing violence, physical neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.


The research participants’ compulsive buying behavior was measured using the Compulsive Buying Scale (CBS), which is a screening instrument commonly utilized to identify compulsive buyers.


The CBS asks participants to rate how they agree/disagree with statements representing specific behaviors and feelings related to compulsive buying; for instance:

  • Felt others would be horrified if they knew of my spending habits

  • Bought myself something in order to make myself feel better

  • Felt anxious or nervous on days I didn’t go shopping

  • If I have any money left at the end of the pay period, I just have to spend it

Researchers found that all five forms of trauma demonstrated statistically significant correlations with compulsive buying behavior as assessed by the CBS. However, two forms of childhood trauma (i.e. witnessing violence and emotional abuse) emerged as unique predictors of compulsive buying.


Medication Treatments of Compulsive Buying Disorder


In a 2016 research report, researchers say they analyzed the available published evidence on the pharmacological treatment of compulsive buying disorder, and they concluded that there is no evidence to propose a specific pharmacologic agent for compulsive buying disorder.


Pharmacological classes analyzed included antidepressants, mood stabilizers, opioid antagonists, second-generation antipsychotics, and N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonists.


The reviewed literature suggests that pharmacological interventions may be effective, but the positive results of pharmacological treatment have not yet been confirmed in controlled trials.


Behavioral Therapy for Compulsive Buying Disorder


Psychotherapies such as the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proved to be effective in treating compulsive buying behaviors.


In CBT group therapy, the therapist seeks to identify antecedents to problematic shopping, stop the behavior once antecedents are recognized, and replace the shopping behavior with more productive alternative behaviors.


Group members are encouraged to map their behavior patterns and examine the behavior chains associated with their compulsive buying behavior. They are encouraged to make lists of items that are necessities and only purchase those items when shopping.


An important aspect of this treatment approach is that participants are asked to close all credit accounts in order to limit their access to expendable funds.


The treatment also focuses on restructuring maladaptive thoughts that become associated with shopping and buying and coping with the negative mood states that are associated with compulsive buying. Also, the treatment includes general information on improving self-esteem, improving problem solving and decision-making skills.


In a 2006 research report, researchers say they advertised on local newspapers offering a “free group therapy program for adult females who compulsively shop.” Among the 39 people who participated in the study, 28 were assigned to receive active treatment and 11 to the waiting list control group.


The group therapy consisted of 12 sessions over a period of 10 weeks. The results at the end of treatment showed significant advantages for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) over the waiting list in reducing the number of compulsive buying episodes and time spent buying.


Improvement was well-maintained at 6-month follow-up. This study suggests that a cognitive behavioral intervention can be quite effective in the treatment of compulsive buying disorder.

Sources consulted:

Ertelt, Troy W., et al. “Current Status of Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Compulsive Buying Disorder.” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, vol. 39, 2009, pp. 213–220.

Mitchell, James E., et al. “Cognitive behavioral therapy for compulsive buying disorder.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 44, 2006, pp. 1859–1865.

Miltenberger, Raymond G., et al. “Direct and retrospective assessment of factors contributing to compulsive buying.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, vol. 34, 2003, pp. 1–9.

Sansone, Randy A., et al. “Childhood trauma and compulsive buying.” International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, vol. 17, 2013, pp. 73–76.

Soares, Celia, et al. “A Review of Pharmacologic Treatment for Compulsive Buying Disorder.” CNS Drugs, vol. 30, 2016, pp. 281–291.

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