Woman with a Bunch of Shopping Bags © Fuse, Fuse, Getty Images

Overflowing closets, jewelry boxes stacked one on top of the other, unopened shopping bags scattered throughout the house -- these are all telltale signs of a person with a shopping addiction. Just as gamblers can't resist a trip to the casino, those with a shopping compulsion cannot stop themselves from frequenting the mall or visiting the websites of their favorite stores.

Although the addictions are significantly different, gamblers and shopaholics both surrender to a vice that can tear their finances apart. The temptation to swipe one credit card after another is hard to dispel, despite the destruction a shopping spree leaves in its path.

Approximately 2% to 5% of Americans have a shopping addiction. For many, the consequences are devastating: More than 1 in 20 Americans have a shopping habit that jeopardizes their relationships or careers, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

A number of misconceptions surround shopping addiction. Despite popular belief, the Internet hasn't completely revolutionized the way so-called "shopaholics" operate, according to Donald Black, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa who studies impulse-control disorders. Even though the Web has made retailers accessible at one's fingertips, shopping online doesn't provide the same sensory experience as a brick-and-mortar store.

"One of the things compulsive shoppers will tell you is they really enjoy the shopping experience, and I'm not sure that Internet shopping provides them with the sensual pleasures they're looking for," he says. "They like the sounds, the smells, the feel of fabrics -- you can't have that shopping online."

In addition to varying shopping methods, not everyone with a shopping addiction sees their finances fall apart, since some possess the financial resources to support their spending habits. However, the majority of compulsive shoppers exhibit habits that have damaging effects on their personal lives. For instance, mothers may be hitting the mall when they should be taking care of their children, or people choose shopping over socializing and eventually lose friends.

Much of America's growing number of shopping addicts is a result of Western civilization, says April Lane Benson, author of "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self."

"Consumption fuels our economy. Materialism is rampant. We think that if you can't buy happiness, you just don't know where to shop," she says. Some onlookers admire compulsive shoppers' ability to spend a lot of money, which can encourage them even more. "A lot of times, it's a smiled-upon addiction," Benson says.

Because of the way society enables their addiction, compulsive shoppers often rationalize their habits. Some think they simply have good taste, which warrants their need to keep up with the latest trends. Others falsely believe they have the assets to support their hobby. Many times, they are overlooking the root of their addiction: emotions that may include loneliness, boredom, depression or the desire to feel empowerment.

Another energizer is the high some shoppers feel at the point of sale. But the rush is only temporary, Black says. Once they go home and see how much they've spent, the euphoria usually disappears. This can lead people to feel "buyer's remorse." Many hide the items -- in the trunk of their car, in the attic, in the storage room -- to conceal their shopping addiction.

"They know what they're doing is wrong and obsessive, and they're either ashamed or embarrassed by it," says Black, "otherwise, why would they hide it?" In some extreme cases, people purchase a bunch of items, suffer from buyer's remorse and return the products, only to come back later to buy them again. Benson calls them "returnaholics."

According to Benson, shopaholics can never get enough of things they want but don't need. Consequently, she says compulsive shoppers need to figure out what it is they're really shopping for; for most shopping addicts, she says it's never the items in their cart.

U.S. News & World Report spoke to two reformed shopaholics who shared their stories of how they developed, grappled, and overcame their addiction (quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity).

Mary Hunt, founder of DebtProofLiving.com and author of "7 Money Rules for Life":

I was probably born with the propensity to become a shopping addict. I think it's a temperament. I wasn't able to practice it because I grew up in a very frugal family and didn't have the means to shop for things that weren't needs. So as a child, I always dreamed I was going to be rich one day and be able to spend money freely.

When I left my home in Washington to go to college in California, I got away from the tightly regulated life I had. The first thing I did was get a checking account. I had discovered a way I could spend money I didn't have by writing checks. I suppose deep down I knew it wasn't right, but it was exhilarating and satisfying. It gave me a high, a buzz, the feeling that I could get away with anything.

If I bought shoes at Nordstrom's, I'd have to buy a pair of every color. I felt the salespeople were looking at me and thinking, "Oh, how I'd love to be her and live this wonderful lifestyle," and that made me feel important. I had the same fantasy when I got my first gas card and had the option to go through full service. While they'd fill up the car, I'd sit there and think, "Wow, this is what the queen of England must feel like. I have a host of people waiting on me, people tending to my carriage." I knew it was just a fantasy, but it was what I wanted. Of course, if I was with a friend I wouldn't buy anything. You never want to practice your addiction in front of someone.

By the time I got married I had access to credit cards. But after a while, I had this moment where I realized I was affecting other people's lives -- my husband's and my kids'. I didn't want to disappoint my husband. I told him time after time that I wouldn't go on another shopping spree. I'd cut up the credit cards and close accounts, but it didn't last forever. The pain of my actions was never great enough to make me give up compulsive shopping; there was always a tipping point. It came to the point where if I was alone with plastic, I was just a disaster waiting to happen. I loved my credit cards. They were my lifeblood, they were my oxygen, they were the tools that allowed me to be the person I couldn't be growing up.

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