Have you ever found yourself trying to avoid nighttime snacking by browsing some of your favorite shopping websites? Or feel the need to reward yourself for “being good” this week with your diet and exercise plan so you stopped by your favorite store, only to discover your arms are covered with shopping bags an hour later?
April Benson is a New York-based psychologist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying disorder. Through counseling patients and doing research on her book, To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, she and other experts have discovered that there’s a link between “eating disorders” and “shopping.” They’re called “companion disorders” and a lot of people might not even be aware that when they are suffering from one disorder, the other one comes into play.
Someone with an eating disorder who’s trying to avoid overeating at night might try to pass the time and refocus their energy by sitting at their computer and buying items online, says Benson. Shopping could also be the way someone with an eating disorder reacts when something emotional or stressful has happened. “You have to develop willpower and not do that activity—whether it’s shopping or overeating—and instead learn to tolerate how you feel,” she says.
Why You’re Becoming a Compulsive Shopper
If you used to address your emotions by binge eating, purging, or overexercising, you might find that you’re refocusing your energy into shopping for a temporary physical replacement of that emotional void you’re trying to fill.
“Unless you’ve begun to notice your urges and strengthen your psychological muscles so you can resist temptation, you’re not going to make any changes,” says Benson. A person who previously had an eating disorder might overeat after feeling guilty after overshopping and going back to bulimic behavior, she says.
In 1991, Benson attended an eating disorders conference and heard one of the keynote speakers, Catherine Steiner-Adair, ask the audience what they thought were the two major activities traditionally pursued by women to deal with life’s ups and downs. After the silence, she answered her own question: “Dieting and shopping.”
“In the intervening twenty years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the intricate and complex relationship between shopping and eating, weight and wealth, being rich and being thin,” says Benson. And psychotherapist F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W. explored some of the same territory in a chapter of the book I Shop Therefore I Am in her chapter and blog post excerpt for PsychologyToday.com, When Eating and Shopping Are Companion Disorders. Barth says she sees shopping and eating as two entirely normal ways to regulate and manage moods and feelings; they can soothe us when we feel “hurt, lonely, angry, or disappointed,” relax us when we feel “tense, overwhelmed, or over-stimulated,” or energize us when we feel sad or tired. She says that eating and shopping disorder behaviors are ways of trying to cope with feelings that seem to be overwhelming or somehow potentially out of control.
In a blog post on NationalEatingDisorders.org, psychologist Nina Savelle-Rocklin examines the link between finances and food, saying the: behaviors with food and finances are strategies to cope with uncomfortable or intolerable thoughts, emotions and conflicts, including, but not limited to, the following: Expressing mixed feelings about needs, managing emptiness and loneliness, and enacting conflicts over abundance. Dr. Savelle-Rocklin goes on to say often eating binges and shopping binges are described the same way, where the person has an experience of “spacing out” or “going blank” and not feeling present.
Whether you think you suffer from an eating disorder, overshopping problem, or both, it’s best to seek out professional help. “It’s hard to do this alone and it can be a devastating problem,” says Benson. A professional can help you identify your feelings and find healthy ways to work through them.
Talk therapy helps make these feelings more manageable, says Barth in her blog. She suggests people suffering from these companion disorders talk about the tiny details of everyday experience to another person who is interested in and curious about what it is like to be inside your body and living your life. This can help find new ways to manage feelings that seem so uncontrollable that they have to be binged out of existence.
When you’re upset, anxious, depressed, lonely, or angry, let yourself sit with the feelings for a few moments, suggests Benson. “The feelings won’t last if you notice and allow,” she says. “Notice what’s wrong, resist it and relax into the underlying feeling. Allow yourself to feel it. Don’t swallow it or wallow in it.”