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A woman shops in California.

Kevork Djansezian/2011 Getty Images

I'm the first to admit that a sharply discounted price tag will make my heart beat faster. Is it just the thrill of the hunt, the thought that I could be scoring a ridiculous bargain that I can brag about later? Or is it something deeper, even pathological?

We sometimes joke about enjoying retail therapy, being shopaholics or shopping till we drop, but the compulsion to shop has become a serious problem for some people. As many as 16 per cent of all American adults may be compulsive buyers, with uncontrolled urges to buy, according to an influential article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006. Oniomania (from the Greek onios, meaning "for sale") affects one in 12 consumers in Australia, according to the Australian Psychological Society.

At a time when almost 60 per cent of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque and the national debt-to-income ratio is at a record 147 per cent, University of Guelph marketing and consumer studies professor Sunghwan Yi is studying what motivates excessive buying.

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There are impulse shoppers and compulsive shoppers, he says.

"I believe that, among pathological compulsive shoppers, excessive buying is primarily motivated by the need to escape from negative feelings about oneself, such as shame and sense of worthlessness," he says. "In contrast, for impulse buyers, other motives, like the need for sensory stimulation and materialism, are likely to be more important."

He plans to assess the strength of different motives by using a technique called "response time" that involves detecting the strength of a person's positive and negative associations with a concept. Participants in the study will press different computer keys as soon as word strings appear on a computer screen. This procedure mirrors how quickly the thought of going shopping pops up in compulsive buyers' minds when they feel negative about themselves, compared with impulse buyers.

In the past, research on excessive buying relied on one-on-one interviews among small samples of self-identified pathological shoppers, a technique that is not as rigorous, Mr. Yi says. "For one thing, their recollection may not be accurate, or they may not be consciously aware of their feelings; or maybe they're simply too embarrassed to be fully revealing."

Compulsive shopping is an impulse control disorder, fuelled by the easy availability of credit and society's focus on material possessions, according to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.

How can you tell if you have a problem? Psychologist April Lane Benson, who wrote a self-help book titled To Buy or Not to Buy , suggests asking yourself some questions:

• Do you use shopping as a quick fix for the blues?

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• Do you often buy things that you don't need or can't afford?

• Do your buying binges leave you feeling anxious or guilty?

• Is your shopping behaviour hurting your relationships?

• Have you tried to stop but been unable to?

In other words, it isn't simply buying things you need or searching out the best deal on some luxury item. Shopping becomes a way to escape problems, as the MyAddiction.com website points out.

The Australian Psychological Society provides these tips for dealing with the issue:

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• Cut up all your credit cards, except one for use in an emergency.

• Avoid shopping when feeling stressed or down in the dumps.

• If you get the urge to shop, go for a walk or to the gym. Not only is exercise a good distraction, it can help to reduce excess adrenaline and stress levels.

• Write a list of the things you need to buy before you go shopping - and stick to the list.

• If possible, identify a close friend or family member in whom you can confide and who can provide support at difficult times. Arrange to call this person whenever you feel an urge to shop so they can help you to deal with it.

• When you do need to go shopping, consider taking this person with you so that they can help you to limit your purchases to only the things that you need.

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• Learn some 'self-talk' that you can use when you are feeling the urge to shop - for example, you may say to yourself: "I don't need to go shopping," "I can't afford to go shopping," or "If I do something else to take my mind off it, I will feel good later on because I won't have spent any money."

• Avoid going to shopping centres where you will be tempted to browse in stores - for example, go to a supermarket that is not located within a larger shopping complex.

• Try to identify the negative thoughts or situations that may underlie your need to shop - such as, "I hate my job. I always feel hopeless at the end of the day." Try to reframe this in a more positive and helpful way, working towards finding a solution: "I'm not happy at work. I need to put in an effort to find a different job."

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