Transfer Addiction

Shopping: What To Do When You Have a Transfer Addiction

January 23, 2017

So we all may ask… Can shopping really be a transfer addiction?

We may say…
but I have lost so much weight and I need to buy more clothes;
I look really good and I just want to shop;
I feel really good and I want to shop;
I can finally shop in ‘normal’ stores, so I want to shop.

Yes, these are all very normal thoughts and very exciting and confident thoughts, so we ask…can there can be a fine line to excessive ‘addictive-like’ shopping behaviors. Do you have a transfer addiction?

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a condition in which the body must have a “drug” to avoid physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addiction’s first stage is dependence, during which the search for a “drug” dominates an individual’s life. An ‘addict’ eventually develops tolerance, which forces the person to consume larger and larger doses of the “drug” to get the same effect. (Encyclopedia of Psychology)

What is Excessive?

Going beyond the usual, necessary, or proper limit or degree.

What does Transfer Addiction Mean?

“Transfer Addiction” is a term coined by psychologists involved in substance abuse treatment. It refers to the tendency for people who ‘relapse’ after being treated for one form of substance abuse (addiction) to develop a compulsion for another substance or harmful addictive behavior.

Cross Addiction and Weight-Loss

Cross addiction is loosely defined as exchanging one abuse or impulsive behavior (our example would be impulse eating) for another (for example, shopping). Many individuals who experience a significant weight-loss may have a history of disordered, emotional, compulsive eating behaviors and/or potential other “addictive-like” behaviors; and therefore may be more prone to additional “cross” impulses (addiction) after a period of weight loss.

In many cultures, it is standard practice that food is inappropriately utilized for comfort, to camouflage their emotions or to ‘cope’ with stress, and we all can identify the fine line between function and dysfunction.  Thus, if such behavioral eating patterns are left unnoticed, one can be vulnerable with no coping mechanism, when they no longer use food in such a way. This makes for a heightened awareness for both clients and treating clinicians, to identify dysfunctional patterns and implement alternative coping strategies.

The development of a cross addiction can occur with any lifestyle change that may be abrupt and therefore one may lead to a dysfunctional reaction following addictive-like behaviors.

To avoid this problem, it is important that one is aware of their individual possibilities that may encourage a vulnerability to be at risk for cross-addiction. This is not the common, therefore, it is important to do self-exploration to avoid being reactive and vulnerable.

Let's explore this with our ‘very common’ daily behaviors of using food to cope with stress (good and bad stressors) and/or within a social environment. If you use food to cope with stress, as a comfort, for example, what are the coping strategies you are going using in the place of food when you are not hungry? Finding other ways to soothe yourself when you are anxious or angry, for example, should be in place before encountering weight loss or any lifestyle change to encourage long-term successes.

This is where some people will respond with …SHOPPING!!

Can Shopping be an Addiction?

The compulsive buying scale asks (below is an abbreviated view, of the Compulsive Buying Scale © Valence. D’Astous & Fortier):

  1. When I have money, I cannot help but spend part or all of it.
  2. I am impulsive in my buying behavior.
  3. For me, shopping is a way of facing the stress of my daily life and relaxing
  4. I sometimes feel like something inside pushes me to go shopping.
  5. There are times when I have a strong urge to buy.
  6. I often have an unexplained urge, a sudden and spontaneous desire, to go and buy something.

If you have answered yes to most of these above questions, it would be recommended to complete the Compulsive Buying Scale to aid in behavioral identification and awareness. A “shopping addiction” can lead to financial risk, impacted relationships, family mistrust, personal shame, and guilt. Talking with a licensed practitioner can help you understand the feelings that may trigger your compulsive, “addictive”-like behaviors with shopping.

Behavioral Strategies

Additionally, indicated are six behavioral strategies that can aid in developing functional long-term coping strategies.

  1. Find a new or a prior activity that you enjoy to substitute for shopping (i.e. listen to music, go for a run or walk, plan an outing with family or friends, visit your to-do list).  All such suggestions with give you “a destination”.
    This will complement your life goals and encourage a core of confidence.
  2. Talking with family, friends, peers, and/or professionals
    This will aid in effective communication, reduce shame and development of a functional outlet.
  3. When you are in a situation that makes you want to ‘compulsive’ shop, think of a ‘thought stop’ strategy, such as: breath, refocus, stay grounded in where you are and writing down your thoughts to aid in trigger identification.
    This will aid you in, staying in the moment, increased mindfulness and reduce compulsions.
  4. Limit the amount of cash you carry and leave credit cards or debit cards at home.
    This will create financial boundaries and increase your awareness to emotional triggers.
  5. Always carry a shopping list to the store and create a boundary, a promise, a commitment to purchase only the items indicated.
    This will encourage commitment and confidence.
  6. Set a dollar limit prior to spending.
    This will aid in the development of accountability and confrontation of the “compulsive thoughts”.

It is important to note that behavioral addictions (i.e. shopping, exercise or sex) are not including in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5 (DSM-5, 2013), because there is not sufficient evidence to establish a diagnostic criteria, which would guide clinical intervention and treatment.

With this known information, it is essential to be mindful of your behavior, as we know there is a lot of excitement, increased body image, increased confidence and increased self-esteem with weight loss; and these emotions deserve to be rewarded. Shopping can be your reward, of course, and remind yourself that as long as you feel confident with your behavior, and there are no negative outcomes (debt, guilt, shame, overwhelm, etc), your reward system is functional and productive to encouraging lifestyle changes.


Losing weight without addressing the emotional ‘attachment’ you may have to food or the important purpose food has served in your life could lead to the ‘cross-addiction’-like behaviors. Honor your past. If you’ve used food for comfort, within the content of emotions, or mindlessly, recognize that perhaps that was the only way you knew at the time to get comfort or have created such habits. Don’t beat yourself up about this. Affirm that you are ready and committed to your lifestyle behavioral changes and will embrace the freedom that confidence based eating will give you…. And shopping can maintain your reward system (without impulse or erratic behaviors of course).

What Works

There are many forms of evidence-based behavioral treatments for transfer addiction, and these interventions would be complements to one's preparation for lifestyle changes with weight loss and throughout one's weight loss journey to optimize functional outcomes with physical and mental health.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT can help patients overcome Addictive behaviors by teaching them to recognize and avoid trigger/dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. A cognitive-behavioral therapist can, for example, teach a patient to recognize the triggers that cause his or her craving and then avoid or manage those triggers.
  • Motivational interviewing. This therapy technique involves structured conversations that help patients increase their motivation to overcome impulsive behaviors by, for example, helping them recognize the difference between how they are living right now and how they wish to live in the future.

Lessons to Learn From Transfer Addicion

Important fact and take home message- weight loss surgery does not cause addictions. The lesson to be learned from “transfer addiction” is that to lose weight successfully and keep the weight off, you must find a way to cope efficiently with your emotional, situational or sensory triggers.

Dieting and surgery will treat the symptoms of obesity, but not the emotional/behavioral/sensory triggers that affected your eating and exacerbated the disease initially. Shopping can be a very functional enjoyment, and with anything in excess, you should identify the excessiveness and modify the behavior to heighten your confidence.

Dr. Willo Wisotsky is a NY State Licensed Psychologist and is affiliated with New York Bariatric Group

transfer addiction


Dr. Willo Wisotsky is a NY State Licensed Psychologist and is affiliated with New York Bariatric Group. Dr. Wisotsky has committed her research and clinical practice to the field of eating disorders and obesity with its related medical and mental health comorbidities. Dr. Wisotsky practices from a Behavioral Medicine approach with an emphasis on improving overall well being, increasing mindfulness, motivation, quality of life and health.
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