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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Retail Therapy

When you find yourself depressed, upset, or overwhelmed, do you choose to go shopping as a way to improve your mood? This is known as Retail Therapy, and while shopping hardly qualifies as therapy in the medical or psychotherapeutic sense, it may indeed have some therapeutic benefits.

A study published in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing revealed that 62% of shoppers had purchased something to cheer themselves up. But is retail therapy really effective? It may be that in small, manageable, and affordable doses it can be, and not be a problem when done in moderation. While material possessions rarely bring happiness, here are some possible benefits:

Easing major life transitions: It’s no surprise that for many Americans, the two most shopping-intensive times coincide with two of our greatest transitions: getting married and having a baby. Or, how about outfitting a dorm room for your teenager? Shopping and visualizing the future is a means of preparing for these enormous transitions, and helps us to feel more control and less anxiety about what lies ahead. We visualize how we might use the items, and then visualize a new life with them. Great athletes attest that visualization is a performance booster and an anxiety reducer. The act of browsing and purchasing can help us anticipate, imagine, and mentally prepare.

Dress for success: Those interviewing for a new job, starting a new job or relationship, or moving to a new town all want to put their best foot forward. It is clear that dressing appropriately not only increases our confidence, but also helps us to perform better. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology had some participants wear white doctor’s coats. This group had far more accurate scores on tests of attention and concentration than did those wearing only street clothes.

Entertainment and rejuvenation: Shopping, whether online or at a store, may represent a type of mini mental vacation - a relatively mindless, relaxing activity. When faced with a difficult task, short breaks like these can actually improve performance and decision-making.

Connection with others: Virtually every culture has long used the marketplace as a place to relate with others in the community.

However, overdoing any behavior can lead to serious problems. The warning signs for habitual shopping or compulsive buying disorder look very similar to warning signs for other abuses and addictions, such as those for alcohol. A person abusing shopping may hide purchases from loved ones, feel guilt or shame, miss work or other obligations, and feel that shopping is no longer fun but necessary. Many have gone into debt as a result. This condition may require psychological help.

Here are some first steps for those of you with concerns about habitual shopping:

  • Shop only for items you already planned to purchase.

  • Bring only a small amount of money with you.

  • Window-shop, or put items onto an online wish list rather than in your cart. Try on clothing, but put items back or on hold. Evaluate the potential purchases another day, and make a less impulsive decision.

Retail therapy may or may not be a bad thing. Controlled spending has been shown to help with mood and stress, however overspending and shopping addiction are terrible coping mechanisms. If you feel that your shopping is out of control, seek help.

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