Is It Retail Therapy? Or Do You Have a Shopping Compulsion?

How you benefit from the therapeutic effects of shopping
Is It Retail Therapy? Or Do You Have a Shopping Compulsion?

When we say we’re going to the mall for a little retail therapy, most of us are being humorous. But does shopping and purchasing new things really help us to feel better? Or is it just an excuse to spend money?

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Research suggests there actually is a bit of therapeutic value in window-shopping or visiting your favorite boutique for a few hours – your mood and spirits get a boost.

Restoring control

Some research has shown that making shopping decisions can help to restore a sense of personal control over one’s environment, and so can help to ease feelings of sadness, says clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.

A 2014 study by University of Michigan researchers showed that shopping was up to 40 times more effective at giving people a sense of control, and they were three times less sad compared to those who only browsed.

The study suggests that when you’re feeling as if things aren’t going your way, walking into a store and getting exactly what you want can feel like an achievement, Dr. Bea says.

Distracting us from ourselves

Shopping also stimulates the senses. The bright lights and colorful displays of the stores and the smell of popcorn and soft pretzels from the food court combine for an entertaining experience that can distract us from our everyday thoughts and worries. That’s not a bad thing, Dr. Bea says.

“Shopping gets us sensing and that gets us out of our own thoughts,” Dr. Bea says. “Many times, if we can get away from thinking about ourselves, we can feel better.”

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Whether you’re hunting for something specific or just browsing around, window shopping can positively impact your mood, too. Simply thinking about the future, and the enjoyment or fun that a new possession may bring, can be mood-boosting.

“We’re enamored with possibilities,” Dr. Bea says. “I think in those ways, shopping produces a kind of delightful brain chemistry with relatively low hazard.”

Reward yourself

If you enjoy retail therapy, try using it to reward yourself for a new, positive behavior like working out or eating healthy.

It’s even better if you save for that reward rather than buying something immediately with a credit card.

Saving for a reward gives you something to look forward to. Tracking your accumulating funds and thinking about what to buy can build anticipation and happy thoughts, which can be just as pleasurable as actually buying the reward, Dr. Bea says.

“If you plan it out and say I’m going to save for this or I’m going to reward myself and accumulate those funds to do a little retail therapy, then that can feel really, really good,” Dr. Bea says.

When shopping is a problem

For some people, shopping is a problem. About 7 percent of American consumers – about 20 million people — are compulsive shoppers.

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Compulsive shoppers have a preoccupation with buying and shopping, marked by frequent buying episodes or overpowering urges to purchase items. Their behavior is linked to feelings of worthlessness and a lack of power.

“The condition has a lot in common with eating disorders, sex addiction, and gambling addiction,” Dr. Bea says. “It becomes compulsive when it becomes a way to deal with stress or loss, and it can become very hard to control.”

Research conducted at Indiana University drew a direct correlation between these urges and the search for a rush or high by drug or alcohol addicts. The study showed that compulsive shoppers experience blackout episodes similar to alcohol-related blackouts, in which the buyer does not recall making purchases.

Signs of a shopaholic

Signs of a shopping compulsion include:

  • Shopping is the only way you can make yourself feel better
  • Shopping becomes a “have-to” rather than a “want-to”
  • You buy things you regret the next day and then return them
  • You have credit card debit you can’t pay down

Therapy and support groups can help the compulsive buyer, Dr. Bea says, as well as educating family members on the issue.

“Shopaholics really benefit from an education, and learning what’s leading to this behavior,” he says. “Cutting up your credit cards isn’t going to do it.”

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