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Using Retail Therapy to Comfort Mental Health

What is retail therapy and why is it used?

Retail therapy is the act of shopping as a way to relieve emotional distress in other areas of life. Retail therapy differs from your typical weekly grocery errands because it is triggered by emotions, rather than needs that need to be met. A study was conducted by Pennsylvania State University and researchers published it in Psychology & Marketing which showed that 62 percent of participants bought items to treat themselves and improve their bad mood. Retail therapy is common because it is not necessarily a detrimental way to handle emotional distress.

Sadly though, the fashion industry thrives on this cycle and promotes it by constantly turning over new clothes and trends. There is always some new hyped trend for us to buy into and we are made to always feel a little bit behind the current ‘style’. This need to always fit in extends to much more than just fashion, the furniture in out houses, gadgets we use all contribute to our sense of identity in a society where their main concerns include consumerism and money. Studies have also shown that materialistic values can also lead to decreased life satisfaction, social cooperation and happiness.

“The need to avoid losses – or what we might refer to as FOMO (fear of missing out) – combined with our ingrained desire for novelty, causes a rush of adrenaline which contributes to the thrill of shopping experiences. The hits of dopamine and adrenaline create a reward-seeking loop that causes us to reach for our debit card over and over again.”

The difference between impulse shopping and compulsive shopping

Impulsive shopping is defined as the sudden urge to make an unplanned purchase for example: you’re in Aldi or Tesco to pick up a few items for dinner and you see that your favorite ice cream is on offer. Even though it’s not on your shopping list, you suddenly get the urge to buy it. Buying the ice cream was unplanned and as soon as you saw it in the store, you’ve succumbed to an urge in the moment, leading to you purchasing the ice cream.

Compulsive shopping on the other hand is planning to shop in order to relieve (at least temporarily) an uncomfortable tension. Shopping can also be used as a way to escape negative feelings, such as anxiety, depression, anger, self-critical thoughts or boredom. Compulsive shoppers continue this repetition of behaviour despite its negative consequences, such as accumulating credit card debt, rocky relationships due to shopping too much, or feelings of guilt due to overspending.

Pandemic purchases

Many people turned to online retail therapy during the pandemic in order to make them feel more occupied whilst working or studying from home. University students were asked what things they brought throughout lockdown and it wasn’t just clothes many turned to other materialistic things such as fancy mugs, streaming services and gaming consoles.

As a university student currently in my final year of study, I experienced turning to retail therapy during the pandemic as a way of feeling better emotionally. Once I realised how happy I felt whilst shopping I turned to it more frequently. However, these feelings were very short lived and I ended up going over budget and being left with little to no money for the rest of my term. Happiness was quickly turned into more stress and guilt when I could no longer budget anymore.

How to tackle your retail therapy habit

I have now started to take back control of my finances whilst at university and have turned to other activities to help my mental health for example, I have started running as exercising releases endorphins which help improve your mood. Also, picking up a hobby helps prevent you turning to your computer to shop online. I started learning how to knit as it keeps me focused for long periods of time without spending lots of money. Other ways to help with a shopping habit include:

  • Learning to recognise your triggers. This awareness will help you rationalise before jumping into compulsive shopping.

  • Practicing gratitude when you feel the need to buy something. Writing out a list of your blessings can help you appreciate what you have and minimise the feeling that you need to buy more.

  • Knowing your budget and build in flexibility for fun spending. If you know your limits, you can enjoy what you spend on yourself without feeling guilty afterward.

  • Engaging in retail therapy in moderation. Small pick-me-ups can be a positive influence on your life, just be mindful of how often you’re using shopping as a coping mechanism.

  • Opting for window shopping in-stores or browsing online. Window shopping can still boost your mood without hurting your wallet. Sometimes just adding something to your online shopping cart can scratch the itch.

  • Writing out a list of basic items you need to purchase, such as groceries or household products. Reference this list when you feel like doing a bit of spending so you are meeting your needs and getting chores done while also getting to shop.

  • Making a list of items you want to buy when you’re feeling impulsive and then come back to it later. If you still feel like buying those items, go ahead and make the purchase once you’ve thought it through and you know it will truly make you feel good.

  • Planning and budgeting for any larger purchases. By doing this, when you feel the need to spend, you can make your big purchase and know you made the right choice.

If you feel as though you are suffering from a shopping addiction, it is vital not to waste any more time before addressing it. Contact your GP and/or professional addiction specialist today to discuss your situation and they will also be able to offer treatment plans for you.


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