Australia Counselling member Michelle Laving specialises in shopping addiction and is a pioneer in Australia for offering treatment for this issue that’s on the rise.

So Australia Counselling founder Clinton Power spoke with Michelle to find out more about shopping addiction and how it can be treated. Here’s what she had to say..

Clinton: Hello this is Clinton Power founder of australiacounselling.com.au. I’m speaking today with Michelle Laving who is a Sydney counsellor who works with clients in Neutral Bay on Sydney’s lower North Shore. Welcome Michelle how are you?

Michelle: Hi, nice to meet you.

Clinton: I wanted to speak to you about shopping addiction and this is something you have a keen interest in. Tell us a little bit about how you become interested in the field of shopping addiction?

Michelle: In 2012 I was finishing off my master’s degree with an addictions  specialisation and was thinking about a topic for my research paper. I wanted to focus on the area of process addictions and thought about problem shopping/spending behaviour.

Whilst doing some preliminary research on my thesis I discovered the work of Dr April Benson, a psychologist and internationally renowned expert in compulsive buying disorder.

I contacted her and she was incredibly generous in sharing resources to assist me with my research and letting me know about the treatment program she uses with over-shoppers. After finishing my studies I decided to set up a private practice specialising in educational & therapeutic support for clients engaging in problem shopping behaviour. In consultation with Dr Benson, I use her established treatment model with clients Australiawide.

Clinton: Great, maybe let’s begin by telling us what define shopping addiction or compulsive buying disorder?

Michelle: This is the question that most people ask. Aside from basic provisioning, leisure shopping is a normal activity enjoyed by majority of people and can provide temporary stress relief and a creative form of self expression. Despite the occasional splurge, this pattern of shopping doesn’t cause problems. For others it’s a lot more serious than that. For example when people are regularly and compulsively shopping to meet psychological and social needs, comparable behavioural patterns and consequences to substance addictions can arise. For example, the person will continue to shop and spend despite negative consequences such as financial strain, interpersonal stress and a sense of spiritual emptiness.

Clinton: I’m wondering where that line is between someone who perhaps just loves to go out and have a splurge and maybe they do feel some regret, and thinks maybe I shouldn’t have bought that fifth pair of shoes. I think what you are describing is that someone with shopping addiction will continue to buy and buy even though there will be very bad consequences or the may not have any money to do so. Is that right?

Michelle: Exactly right. Some people, as you said will occasionally splurge but they can pull back from that and get back on track. It will be a financial aftershock of maybe a partner saying, “Hey you bought an extra pair of shoes you shouldn’t have.” That will be enough to pull them back. Compulsive over-shoppers and spenders will continue to engage in that behaviour despite the negative consequences because the shopping offers a reward or transient satisfaction which in turn reinforces the behaviour. In fact the parts of the brain that are activated for other addictions also occur for compulsive shoppers. Just the thought of going to a shop to browse or buy something can trigger off a release of dopamine which is the incentive/ craving part of the brain.

Clinton: Does someone suffering from this experience a high from shopping or from actually the purchase itself or getting home and getting the purchase? Where is the high occurring?

Michelle: It’s variable. There are different subtypes of problem shoppers, for some people it’s the actual high of purchasing something that can be followed by an emotional dip afterwards. This can be followed with a ‘buy and return cycle’ where the purchased item is returned. The high comes from the actual experience of purchasing not the item itself.  For others, the reward comes from owning certain materials that have particular symbolic meaning for them.

Some people even have shopping problems without even spending which people are usually surprised to hear. For example, they will spend an excessive amount of time browsing or are pre-occupied about their purchasing possibilities. In fact some people spend vicariously in that they will compulsively add items to a wish list online to gain a sense of having made a partial transaction.

Clinton: This is just fascinating to me, I guess the other thing I’m wondering and you alluded to it just a moment ago is that are you seeing a rise in the people that are doing this online? Because you don’t need to go to a shop these days to get that high.

Michelle: Absolutely it’s a fertile ground for it because most of us have 24 hour access to online shopping opportunities. We can do it at any time of the day in the comfort of our home. There has been some research indicating that when people are making transactions online it feeds into the denial about money being spent in that the transaction can feel somewhat intangible because your details are already saved in the PayPal account and the purchase just requires a click of a button.

Clinton: I’m smiling because I’m thinking of myself. I’m just back from a trip in the United States where they have this amazing store called DSW, Designer Shoe Warehouse, and the shoes are incredible and they are so cheap. Myself and my brother just went berserk. I guess I’m thinking I did buy quite a few pairs of shoes but I was able to stop and maybe I was able to exert some self-control aside from knowing my luggage limitations were at their maximum! Are you saying in the case of someone with a compulsive buying disorder that they wouldn’t be able to stop or they have very poor ability to regulate themselves in that way?

Michelle: That’s exactly right. Like you will see with any other addiction, there is an ongoing engagement in the behaviour despite negative consequences. For example, preoccupation with the behaviour and repeated & failed attempts to cut down or stop.

Clinton: Let’s talk about the negative consequences what are you saying are some of the bad outcomes that these people were experiencing?

Michelle: The obvious one is financial; people can be carrying huge credit card debt and be struggling to cover the minimum payments. Relationship stress also occurs when spending is hidden from partners and /or couples have different views on spending and saving. Also the constant stress, anxiety and ‘loss of a light heart’ in juggling bills and mounting debt. Some people experience a sense of spiritual emptiness in the constant pursuit of material items that moves them away from ‘true wealth’ and engagement in personal development.

Because shopping is seen as a cultural norm and the media endorses consumer behaviour, problem or excessive shopping is often viewed as a ‘smiled upon addiction’. People can feel an awful amount of shame and embarrassment around having formed an addictive and compulsive pattern around a normal behaviour.

Clinton: Yes.

Clinton: It can become all consuming then and their lifestyle starts to suffer.

Michelle: Yeah absolutely. People can also experience significant grief when they come to realise all the lost potential in terms of time and energy spent on shopping and opportunities for savings and investment.

Clinton: I’m thinking that certainly in Australia, people get in massive credit card debt and they are often paying 18 to 20 plus percent and it just starts to spiral out of control. It reaches a point where it almost becomes impossible to be able to pay that down because the interest rates become so high. Are you seeing that as a major problem with people as well?

Michelle: That’s right. People can think, “What’s the point I’m never going to get out of this, all my salary is going towards paying off these balances.” This can lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness. That’s where financial counsellors play a very important role in helping people with debts…

Clinton: Tell us about that one part would a financial counsellor play in terms of the treatment process?

Michelle: Financial counsellors (registered with FCAN Financial Counsellors Association of NSW) offer a free service to people despite their financial circumstances. Financial counsellors offer support and guidance around credit card debt, debt consolidation, budgeting and bankruptcy.

Clinton: It’s important to have those behavioural structures in place so that they can start developing their good habits around their spending.

Michelle: That’s right.

Clinton: Tell us more about, if you are working with someone who has been really struggling with this what kind of approach are you talking? Is there a standardized treatment approach or … Are you working in a unique way with your clients?

Michelle: In consultation with Dr April Benson, I am using her established Stopping Overshopping model. I looked at it very carefully and found it to be a really compassionate and holistic approach to shopping problems. It’s a 12 week program that can be used in a group setting or with clients individually. I help clients understand the underlying motivations for their overshopping behaviour, explore triggers & their consequences and ambivalence about changing. I also teach clients how to track their spending and evaluate the necessity of each expenditure, anticipate lapses, avoid relapses, identify and plan for high risk situations and develop the capacity to shop mindfully.

Clinton: That’s the word that came to mind for me, this sounds very holistic the program in terms of you are looking at the spiritual side of things, the biological, you are looking at the psychological as well. You are looking at their relationships and their behaviours, it sounds like its quite comprehensive in the way you are approaching.

Michelle: That’s why I was drawn towards Dr. Benson’s program I thought it was just as you say, very holistic and covered all those elements which I think need to be explored in the assessment and treatment of problematic and compulsive shopping behaviour.

Clinton: Is there any research at the moment in terms of the gender. I guess I am wondering is this something that women suffer from more than men or are you saying men also experiencing this?

Michelle: Most of the research so far has reported on woman’s experiences as they mostly volunteer for research in this area.There is probably less research done on men and shopping but certainly they can shop as compulsively as women. From what I’ve read women seem to have more of an emotional attachment to the shopping experience and men may have significant experiences with spending but engage less in the shopping experience..

Clinton: Yes it does and just say a bit more about what is the emotional attachment you are seeing.

Michelle: The shopping experience itself, the browsing, either alone or with a friend can be a reward and reinforcer to overshop for some people. For example there has been some research showing that overshoppers can seek out a pseudo-empathic relationship with an attentive sales assistant to manage current feelings of loneliness or in some cases as a compensatory relationship for poor attachments in early childhood.

Clinton: Yes, wow, that’s quite extraordinary. Tell us a bit about your practice. When I introduced you I said you work in Neutral Bay which is over on the lower North Shore of Sydney. If someone does contact you and they think they might be experiencing this what would be the first steps that they would expect to go through with you?

Michelle: Sure. As you will see on my website I offer a free 15 minute consultation with people so they can get a sense of how I work and I get an idea of how I might be able to help them as well. From that point they could have an initial face-to-face consultation with me in Neutral Bay and then we’d work out whether an individual program or a group program would be suitable for them. If someone is contacting me from another state or from somewhere further away in New South Wales I can do the consultation via Skype.

I do a comprehensive assessment which includes two screening tools that measure compulsive buying. For people who don’t want to commit to the 12 week therapeutic program they can have a shorter individualised program. I also offer people brief educational sessions if they want to learn more about the characteristics of problem and compulsive shopping and have some tools to take away with them.

Clinton: Are there any formal group programs in Australia or oversees at the moment like Alcoholics Anonymous or anything like that?

Michelle: For over-shoppers?

Clinton:  Yes.

Michelle: There are Debtors Anonymous groups based on the 12 step traditions and SMART Recovery groups may be helpful as well..

Clinton: Yes, for alcohol and drugs.

Clinton: Great. What would be the best way if someone wants to contact you for an assessment or the free 15 minute consultation, how should they go about that?

Michelle: My website is www.stepstosimplicity.com.au. My contact number is 0401 424 270.

Clinton: Fantastic okay. That’s www.stepstosimplicity.com.au where you can certainly read more about shopping addiction treatment in Australia and you can also contact Michelle. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Michelle: Thank you Clinton.

Clinton: Bye for now.

Michelle: Bye.

To book an appointment with Michelle Laving in Sydney or on Skype, please visit her Australia Counselling profile or website.