The Wave Clinic – the COVID-19 pandemic and online shopping addiction

8 Apr , 2021 - Blog, Mental Health, News

The Wave Clinic – the COVID-19 pandemic and online shopping addiction


As told The Star Malaysia – original article here.

As The Wave’s International Clinical Director, my work involves assisting young people and their families all over the world with addiction, eating disorders and mental health.

The effects of COVID-19: a global mental health pandemic

Now in its second year, the pandemic continues to evolve, and people are still passing through several psychological stages. Fear, displacement, bereavement, loss of structure and support networks, loss of income; each of these emotions and experiences individually can have far-reaching ramifications; together, without an end in sight, they test our resilience severely.

Numerous global studies indicate that mental health concerns have increased worldwide, from anxiety to eating disorders, addiction to anti-social behaviour. The effects of imposed isolation, economic uncertainty, lack of social connection and pre-existing mental health concerns have been contributing factors in this new global mental health pandemic. 

Dealing with uncertainty and grief

We are struggling to adjust to our new situation/the new reality because we are existing in a “grey area’. As a community, country or world, we are unable to predict our individual and collective outcomes to an unprecedented degree. We find ourselves powerless, sitting and waiting for the future to unfold, whilst challenged by a reduced sense of security, normalcy and familiarity with the world, and a confused perception of time.

People worldwide are struggling with grief, on many complex levels: grief for loved ones who have lost the battle with COVID 19, or for those whom we were unable to send off in the way we feel they deserved. In addition, we have felt, and still feel, ‘anticipatory grief’ for the loss of what was, or what we hoped would be. Add to this the threat to our physical safety, and facing our own and collective mortality, and it is easy to see and feel why this year has been so tough. 

Behavioural/process addiction and substance use disorder

Triggered by this mix of uncertainty, grief, fear and social isolation, we have seen a significant increase in the number of new and returning cases of addiction over the past year.

Addiction falls broadly into two areas: substance use disorder (SUD) is the clinical term for addiction to a substance or alcohol, while process or behavioural addictions describe a group of similar clinical presentations to external stimuli that activate the ‘internal reward’ system. This could be gaming, pornography, shopping or the Internet itself (addiction to the internet in general, and to a specific function of the internet, are different). 

What is online shopping addiction?

Shopping addiction is often referred to as ‘compulsive buying’ or, in more specific cases, ‘online shopping addiction’. Sometimes called an ‘impulse control disorder’, it often occurs together with other disorders, including eating disorders, food and body image concerns, substance use disorders, and personality or mood disorders. In the most extreme cases, this can lead to self-harm and death: suicide rates for young people who have complex mental health needs, including addiction, are rising steadily. 

Whilst shopping addiction or compulsive buying may affect people in multiple different ways, these are some common characteristics:

  • Buying items that you do not need and are unlikely to use
  • Buying or shopping items that you cannot afford 
  • ‘Binge’ shopping episodes, particularly when feeling sad, lonely, bored or distressed 
  • Intense cravings to shop or buy, which leave you feeling powerless
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed or regretful after a shopping experience 
  • Concealing and hiding shopping or purchases from others 
  • Being unable to understand concerns expressed by others about your behaviour 
  • Describing ‘retail therapy’ as a means of coping with stress
  • Feeling unable to stop shopping, even when you have planned to do so
  • Trying, and failing, to cut down shopping episodes
  • Regularly spending more than you intended
  • Feeling increasingly less satisfied with each shopping “trip”, despite engaging in higher value/amounts of shopping 

What are the phases of online shopping addiction?

Compulsive buying, or online shopping addiction, is complicated to navigate and often causes intense feelings of shame, guilt and disgust. There are several phases that a compulsive shopper will experience:

  • Anticipation and preparation. Some people feel empty and agitated prior to engaging in shopping, while many describe intense impulsivity at this stage. Others spend multiple hours researching locations, websites, sales and even the right credit card for the mission, time that would normally be dedicated to family, work or education.
  • The actual shopping experience lights up the same reward system in the brain as many other addictions. Neurons in our brain respond by releasing dopamine, which increases the ‘feelgood factor’ and reinforces the ‘do it again’ or addictive process. It is this feelgood factor, in combination with perpetual isolation, that many have struggled to manage during lockdown. 
  • Shame, remorse and guilt may develop over time, when the shopper, or a family member or loved one is confronted with escalating credit card bills, or when the debts pile up and cannot be paid.
  • The vicious cycle of guilt and emptiness further erodes our self-worth, leading to a need to repeat the experience, once again releasing dopamine in order to reactivate the system.

Who is the typical online shopping addict?

The average age is around 30 years old, probably related to the onset of financial responsibility and the pressure for career development?. High numbers of young adults report noticing behaviours that start in their early [late?] teens and twenties. More women seek treatment than men. 

Research indicates that those with compulsive buying or shopping addiction are statistically more likely to have co-occurring psychiatric conditions or to have a family member with a serious mental health concern. Shopping addiction can be frequently seen to be occur with mood disorders, personality disorder, anxiety and substance use disorder; there is also a high correlation with depression. Intense shopping sprees can also be seen in the manic phrase of bipolar disorder, although this may feel and look different to those who are compulsive buyers. 

What are the effects of online shopping addiction?

Developing shopping addiction, either on or offline, can be devastating and leads to immense personal distress. The emotional, social and economic impacts can be significant and far-reaching: addiction is harmful to the individual, the family and the community.

A compulsive buyer is differentiated from someone who ‘enjoys shopping’: many of us enjoy browsing and shopping for clothes and other items, finding a new look, and we may even occasionally over-indulge. But those of us who do not suffer from this addiction are able to reduce our spending or purchasing to stay within our own financial means. 

When should you seek treatment?

If you are concerned about compulsive shopping or buying, it is essential that you receive advice from a qualified mental health professional. Aside from providing a safe space to express your concerns about your own behaviour, it will also provide an opportunity to consider any other worries that you may have.

Addiction, be it process or substance, is not usually stand-alone. In our experience, it is one of the many maladaptive ways that we have learned to cope with the trials and tribulations that modern life can bring.

What kind of help can you get to recover from addiction?

Recovery from all types of addiction is possible. The initial hurdle is accepting that there is a problem, and seeking help; often, addicts refuse to accept the existence of a problem for a long time. This can be compounded by the stigma that surrounds mental health in general, and addiction in particular.

Our goal in addiction treatment is to end a person’s suffering. Happily, psychiatric management of this disorder has improved notably.

Self-help and 12-step fellowship groups can be particularly useful, working together with others who have also experienced similar issues, and supporting each other to find lasting recovery. One global online shopping addiction support group has 30,000 active members in weekly attendance.

Talk therapy and medication, where necessary, can be also beneficial in the treatment of shopping addiction. The Wave Clinic offers online therapy and psychiatric consultations. Weekly therapy can help you to begin exploring the areas for concern.


Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director at The Wave Clinic in Kuala Lumpur. Fiona is a member of The Association of Child Protection Professionals and has a personal interest in bullying and psychiatric disorders for women across the lifespan. Fiona is a UK Registered Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (MICP #361609) and member of The International Chapter of the IAEDP. Trained in EMDR (EMDRIA Registered), FREED (King’s College, London), CBT-E (CREDO, Oxford) and trauma-focused approaches to eating disorders. 

For information on programs at The Wave, Kuala Lumpur, please contact hello@thewaveclinic.com

Fiona runs a small private eating disorder practice for international families. To find out more, please contact +60125227734

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