Meaningful Paths

Compulsive Shopping

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Written and narrated by Dr. Samantha Brooks.

Impulsivity and compulsivity play a large role in neuropsychiatric research as they underpin many mental health disorders. Unfortunately, impulsive and compulsive thoughts and behaviours are also commonly observed throughout the festive period! Impulsivity is a natural tendency found in all animals that enables the quick avoidance of danger or threat without too much forethought. However, when impulsivity becomes excessive it can be harmful to us and to others. Compulsivity on the other hand, is not a natural tendency. Instead, it is a maladaptive coping strategy or repetitive behaviour that we learn as a habit to help lesson tension or dampen negative emotions. And whereas impulsivity is often related to craving and addictive behaviours – or even violent crime – compulsivity reflects something we do repetitively that we have learned to associate with reward. Usually animals and humans only repeat a behaviour if it was previously pleasurable, or reduced discomfort. By considering the brain processes of impulsivity and compulsivity during the festive period, we might be able to improve our behaviour, control our thoughts, and return to a better sense of peace and goodwill for all!

Compulsive Shopping 1

The tendency to crave and consume (e.g. buy) new products on offer in the shops, especially during the festive season, is an impulsive trait. Most of us do not need another new gadget, a larger TV, or a new pair of shoes. Yet, we might have that uncontrollable, impulsive urge – aroused by the media – to go out and splurge our last remaining credit on an already over-burdened store or credit card. We know we shouldn’t, and we know we want, not need.  But some of us just cannot help the urge to buy more and more stuff over the festive period – and beyond! This is especially true when peer pressure forces us to demonstrate our elevated social status. We would rather avoid our friends, families and co-workers looking down on us! The negative feelings that come with the sense that without the latest gadgets or clothes we are not good enough, can – we have learned – be easily improved with a quick trip to the shops! And while the craving aspect of buying new things is impulsive, the repetitive trips to the shops that become a habit, are learned and compulsive.  Compulsivity means repeating something over and over – even when it is detrimental (like spending credit when you haven’t got the cash) – to the point where it is difficult to stop.  How to stop compulsive shopping? Is a frantic question we often ask ourselves.

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Photo by Arturo Rey on Unsplash

How To Stop Compulsive Shopping

Where do we begin on how to stop compulsive shopping?

Neuroscientists have been able to pinpoint some of the brain processes involved in the difference between impulsivity – acting inappropriately withouth much forethought – and compulsivity – repetitive, habitual responses despite adverse consequences. Areas of the midbrain are typically over-active when we feel impulsive, including the amygdala,  striatum and insular cortex. Interestingly, these brain areas can sometimes be over-active in people who abuse drugs, gamble, overeat or who engage in promiscious sexual practices. So one could say that the impulse to spend more and more money in the shops is a bit like an addiction that has become uncontrollable. Conversely, when we act compulsively, our prefrontal cortex is overrun with thoughts about our habit, be it shopping, dieting, cleaning, or even something healthy like a sport, hobby or occupation. When we develop a compulsion, such as spending too much money in the shops on items we probably don’t need, we are unable to delay the powerful sense that the immediate reward is much better than a later reward (e.g. saving one’s money for the future).  And usually, after some time has passed after the compulsive shopping, an overwhelming sense of guilt, anxiety and negative emotions flood the mind. Then, the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate – midway towards the front of the prefrontal cortex – becomes activated to try to stop the conflict in the mind between feeling pleasure from shopping, and feeling guilty about spending too much money.  But the brain doesn’t like to feel guilty or anxious for long.  Instead, it tries to find a quick fix to feel better again!  And the impulse to spend rears its ugly head quite soon, as we have been taught by an ever-stimulating media that it is good to keep on buying things!

Compulsive Shopping And Hoarding

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Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

But like an addict – and people who frantically search for the latest sought-after item – our impulses and learned compulses (compulsive shopping and hoarding in this case) never satisfy us for long.  We are simply led deeper and deeper down a spiral of alternating brief periods of reward and despair.  Neuroscientists specialising in addiction processes understand that it is very difficult – but not impossible – to rise up from the depths of this spiral.  When people hit rock-bottom they may have spent all of their money, stolen precious items from their families and friends, damaged relationships, amassed huge amounts of debt, become obese, and perhaps also damaged their health. But, despite being at rock-bottom, there is a ladder out.  Neuroscientists using Pavlovian behaviourism as a guide, understand that over time habits can be extinguished, and new, healthier habits can be learned in their place.

Impulsivity And Shopping

Modern society immerses us in visions of continuous temptation (brain elixirs for eternal youth, longevity, power: food, sex, status symbols) that are difficult to ignore.  These temptations are even more alluring during the festive season, when we are all permitted – and even expected – to stop working and enjoy ourselves!  Shops fronts, billboards, newspapers, TV and the internet bombard us with enticing special offers and exciting rewards that grab our attention and make us forget about our more sensible long term goals.  We are easily tempted to forget that we don’t have endless amounts of money to spend, and we may easily swipe our credit card when we temporarily bond with the friendly, smiling check-out assistant who asks us to hand over our cash.  It is only later, when the exciting lights, music and bargains of the shopping mall have ceased – and we are back in the familiar surroundings of home – that we regain our sense of composure.  How does this acute loss of control over our spending behaviour happen so readily, and so quickly, to so many people, during the festive season?  And how can we try to improve our self-control, so that we don’t start the new year with heavy debts to pay off?

Eva Ritvo M.D., writing for Psychology Today, coins the term ‘trifecta of neurotransmitters’ that infect the way our brain functions on Black Friday. These 3 neurotransmitters are: dopamine (reward/pleasure), serotonin (happiness) and oxytocin (bonding, social connection).  These neurotransmitters gain even further traction over our brain’s functioning if we are already in a state of mental overload and anxiety – so many things to buy, so many crowds, so little time and money left before the holidays!  When our prefrontal cortex is overloaded with thoughts in this way, the dopamine released in the middle part of the brain takes over our behaviour and increases our craving and impulsivity, and reducing our anxiety.  This is particularly true when we are anticipating buying something we like (it is no coincidence that shops start advertising their Black Friday deals early – to give the brain the expectation it craves).  What’s more, is that the dopamine build-up is especially sensitive if our peers and other people we value have – or want – these products too. Furthermore, our brains derive the most dopamine release from novelty – new bargains, new products, new stimulating advertisements.  And more interesting still – if something is novel and it’s high value has been temporarily slashed – which is what happens on Black Friday, then we don’t have to work so hard to obtain that valuable item!  And our brains are wired to find ways to get the most value for the least amount of work – and when Black Friday provides this for us, our brains become drenched in dopamine!

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Photo by The Nix Company on Unsplash

The second of the trifecta, serotonin, is associated with good mood and motivation – conversely people with low motivation and who feel depressed have diminished levels of serotonin in their brains.  Interestingly, the precursor to serotonin – tryptophan – is not produced by our bodies but from essential amino acids in our food.  So it is no coincidence that after a few hours of motivated, frenzied shopping on Black Friday, we might be left feeling tired and hungry!  Cue the takeaway outlets that offer enticing, cheap, fast meals while we shop!  And so keeping us motivated to seek bargains, to follow the advertising trails that lure us to various shops, maintains the surge of serotonin in our brain circuitry.

Finally, oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus – a brain area associated with  hunger
and stress, among other homeostatic (balancing) systems in the body and brain.  Oxytocin is released when we fall in love, when we have sex,  and in the baby and mother when a baby breastfeeds. It is often termed ‘the bonding hormone’, which connects us socially to others.  As such, it is interesting to consider that oxytocin is released into the brain when we impulsively search for bargains on Black Friday.  But this is partly due to oxytocin’s ability to make us feel calmer.  Buying a bargain is a form of ‘self-medicating’, especially if we were previously feeling stressed.  Oxytocin is an antidote to stress and anxiety – and could be one route into a sense of loss-of-control and craving the next spend.  Women in particular may gain a sense of providing for their loved ones when buying bargains over the festive period – a proxy bonding ritual for the modern age.

With knowledge of some of the brain processes underlying our impulsive spending during events such as Black Friday – what can be done to help us improve our brain’s ability to foster self-control and will-power?  Some neuroscientists argue that it is possible to strengthen the neural pathways (white matter tracts) between the prefrontal cortex and the dopamine-releasing reward areas in the middle of the brain to improve our self-control.  It is possible to do this for example, by exercising one’s working memory – a process that involves repetitively keeping in mind some thoughts while avoiding stimulating distractions (there are many free online working memory games to play).  It is known that during periods of excessive spending and impulsive shopping, our working memory is hardly functioning at all.  And so by practising our working memory ability at home may well help us to make better choices in the shops

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Dr. Samantha Brooks is a Reader of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Liverpool John Moores University, UK, and a Chartered member of the British Psychological Society. Her research specialises in the neural mechanisms of impulse control in various psychiatric conditions (e.g. addiction, eating disorders). Previously, Dr Brooks worked as a lecturer for six years at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and co-led the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Group. Before working in South Africa, she completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Uppsala University, Sweden, where Dr Brooks continues to collaborate on projects examining the brain processes underlying eating disorders and adolescent-onset mental health disorders. She gained her Ph.D. at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, where she learned clinical neuroimaging techniques, such as structural and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Dr Brooks has published book chapters and over 100 papers to date in high impact journals with a current H Index of 42, continuing to present her work at international conferences. Her research on impulse control in eating disorders and addiction has so far attracted over 1 million Euros in international funding and collaborations with international experts in the field.

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