Retail therapy is a quick and easy way for us to feel good — and look good — with just the swipe of a credit card. However, retail therapy can also spiral into a shopping addiction when used to deal with day-to-day disappointments and emotional ups and downs. In a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers developed The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale (BSAS), which reveals the seven warning signs of a shopaholic.

Excessive and compulsive shopping has been considered one of many behavioral addictions for years. In the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the section “Substance-Related Disorders” was renamed “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders,” as it first introduced “Internet Gaming Disorder.” These changes represent an increasing recognition of non-chemical addictions, although most non-chemical addictions, like shopping addiction, have yet to be included in the psychiatric nosology.

So, what behavioral and psychological characteristics fall into shopping addiction?

Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen, a clinical psychology specialist and first author of the study, headed the recent research project on shopping addiction at the University of Bergen (UiB). Along with her colleagues, the team sought to devise a scale based on others meant to assess people addicted to substances like illicit drugs and tobacco. They came up with The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale, which looked at seven addiction criteria, including salience, mood modification, conflict, tolerance, withdrawal, relapse, and problems. These items were measured alongside other scales, including the Compulsive Buying Measurement Scale, Mini-International Personality Item Pool, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Overall, these tests were conducted on over 23,000 participants.

The researchers found some clear trends among those who developed a shopping addiction. “Addictive shopping clearly occurs more regularly amongst certain demographic groups. It is more predominant in women, and is typically initiated in late adolescence and emerging adulthood, and it appears to decrease with age," Andreassen said in a UiB news release.

Moreover, the large study found shopping addiction was associated with key personality traits. People who scored higher on extroversion and neuroticism were more at risk of developing shopping addiction. The researchers suspect extroverts — typically social and sensation-seeking people — may use shopping to express their individuality or enhance their social status and personal attractiveness. Meanwhile, neurotic people — typically anxious, depressive, and self-conscious — are more likely to shop to suppress negative feelings.

Andreassen found shopping addiction was more common among those with anxiety and depression.

“We have also found that shopping addiction is related to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, and shopping may function as an escape mechanism for, or coping with, unpleasant feelings — although shopping addiction may also lead to such symptoms," she said.

Are You an Addict?

The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale, created by the researchers, uses seven basic criteria to identify shopping addiction, All items are scored on the following scale: (0) completely disagree, (1) disagree, (2) neither disagree nor agree, (3) agree, and (4) completely agree:

· You think about shopping/buying things all the time

· You shop/buy things in order to change your mood

· You shop/buy so much that it negatively affects your daily obligations (such as school and work)

· You feel you have to shop/buy more and more to obtain the same satisfaction as before

· You have decided to shop/buy less, but have not been able to do so

· You feel bad if you for some reason are prevented from shopping/buying things

· You shop/buy so much that it has impaired your well-being

Scoring "agree" or "completely agree" on at least four of the seven items may suggest that you are a shopping addict, according to the study. But does this mean you shouldn’t partake in retail therapy?

Not exactly. Shoppers can redeem the benefits of retail therapy if done in moderation. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers found retail therapy has the potential to reduce sadness when it’s sparked by a lack of control. Shopping allowed buyers to restore control over their own situation, which had a positive effect on their mood while they rewarded themselves.

Shopping can help take our minds off the difficult situations we face as it offers us a sense of empowerment. Rewarding ourselves every once in awhile can be therapeutic, but not in excess.

So, are you a shopaholic?

Sources: Andreassen CS, Griffiths MD, Pallesen S et al. The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: reliability and validity of a brief screening test. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015.

Rick SI, Pereira B, and Burson KA. The benefits of retail therapy: Making purchase decisions reduces residual sadness. Journal of Consumer Psychology. 2014.