What is Retail Therapy and Is It an Unhealthy Coping Mechanism?

retail therapy

For most people, shopping is part of daily life. Not only does it help us meet our basic needs, but it also lets us treat ourselves now and again. Sometimes it feels like a chore that just needs to get done, but other times it can be a positive, pleasurable experience that helps to relieve stress in our life.

Many of us can relate to buying something nice for ourselves after a stressful day at work or an emotional conflict with a loved one. In these situations, retail therapy is used to cope with life stressors.

What Is Retail Therapy?

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 must be met.

It’s surprisingly common to use retail therapy as a coping mechanism. A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University researchers published in Psychology & Marketing showed that 62 percent of participants bought items to treat themselves and improve their mood. Retail therapy is common because it is not necessarily a detrimental way to handle emotional distress.

The Pennsylvania State study showed that shopping can be a lasting mood lifter. Given most people were found to stay within their budget, overall retail therapy can have a positive effect on mood, which is what keeps us coming back.

Why Does Shopping Feel Good?

Shopping can feel satisfying because it gives us a distraction from daily life. Talkspace therapist Dr. Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC, says that retail therapy “provides a detour, far away from everything else that might be creating additional hurdles for us.” Shopping allows us to focus on one specific thing, a tunnel vision that makes us feel in control while other aspects of life may not be. We can ignore any other life challenge during the time we are engaging in impulsive shopping and spending money.

A study by the University of Michigan in Journal of Consumer Psychology found that shopping can be a way to feel in control and relaxed. The researchers also found that retail therapy can be a way to engage with others. Socializing is another way to boost mood, and shopping can facilitate this, whether to see a friend or to just be around others in a store on your own.

Shopping can feel empowering, which is what we need when life feels out of control. If your work life is stressful, it can make sense to use your hard-earned money to treat yourself. If there is a stressful relationship in your life, buying something new that will self-soothe makes you feel better in the moment and even long after the purchase is made.

Is it Unhealthy to Use Retail Therapy as a Coping Mechanism?

Given the fact that shopping can be a mood booster and make us feel good, it’s understandable that retail therapy has become a coping skill for so many of us to de-stress. There can certainly be a twinge of guilt experienced after making an impulsive purchase, but is it inherently unhealthy? According to Dr. Rice, retail therapy isn’t necessarily bad. When practiced intermittently and in moderation, she says that retail therapy can be a healthy outlet.

“To me, stress is the result of several different categories not going according to plan,” says Dr. Rice. “It’s what happens when the world feels rather out of our control and we are unable to manage it. That’s when we reach for something, anything, that gives us a false sense of control.”

When stress arises, it makes sense that we naturally gravitate towards behaviors that can distract us from uncomfortable emotions. If retail therapy is used as a coping mechanism, and only in moderation, then it can be a positive source of comfort in trying times. If it helps you to move on, then the retail therapy has served its purpose and is not a detriment to your mental health.

However, Dr. Rice says retail therapy becomes a deeper problem “when we switch from a random desire to more of a need. Starting to get side effects [is] the point at which it has gone too far.” For retail therapy, these adverse side effects can be a constant need for compulsive shopping, the inability to pay regular bills, a loss of relationships, and spending more money than you have. Retail therapy can be a source of relaxation in the moment, but if there is a constant need to shop, with negative long-term side-effects, then it has reached the point of being unhealthy.

The shopping-and-stress paradox

Once retail therapy is something you feel like you can’t do without , that’s when the coping mechanism can take over and add more stress than relief to your life. This creates a shopping-and-stress paradox, where shopping is used to deal with stressors but then ends up adding more stress because of the problems it brings.

When spending gets out of control, retail therapy is doing more harm than good in your life. There are ways that you can limit your use of retail therapy, so you don’t become a casualty of the shopping-and-stress paradox.

Alternatives to Engaging in Retail Therapy

If you feel like you’re using retail therapy too much in your life, there are many healthier alternatives to consider. Dr. Rice says that there are “both healthy and unhealthy outlets when we are coping with aversive triggers. While retail therapy has healthy potential, I’m not sure I would label it as a purely healthy outlet.”

Dr. Rice recommends these alternatives for when you’re looking to curb your retail therapy habits:

  • Practice groundedness by paying attention to your five senses and your surrounding environment.
  • Slow down with deep muscle relaxation, tightening and releasing each muscle to become mindful of your body and destress.
  • Do intensive exercise to replace your retail therapy with a different activity.
  • Go on an outdoor exploration to rejuvenate your mind.
  • Focus on mindful breathing, counting your breaths with each inhale and exhale.
  • Get involved with volunteering in your community and pay it forward.
  • Have meaningful conversations with your loved ones to whole-heartedly connect with others.

These are all great ways to improve your mood that can be even better than engaging in retail therapy. While retail therapy is sometimes just what you need, these options will likely be a better way to take care of your mental health overall.

Strategies for Limiting Retail Therapy

If these alternatives still don’t do it for you, there are also ways to limit how much you are engaging in retail therapy, while still giving you room to treat yourself.

  • Learn to recognize your triggers. This awareness will help you rationalize before jumping into compulsive shopping.
  • Practice gratitude when you feel the need to buy something. Writing out a list of your blessings can help you appreciate what you have and minimize the feeling that you need to buy more.
  • Know 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.
  • Engage 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.
  • Opt 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 shopping cart online can scratch the itch.
  • Write 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.
  • Make 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.
  • Plan and budget for any larger purchases. This way, when you feel the need to spend, you can make your big purchase and know you made the right choice.
  • Institute a credit card limit of your choosing. By having charges above a certain amount declined, it will be easier to stay within budget.

While retail therapy in moderation is not an inherently unhealthy behavior, these strategies can help if it becomes more prevalent or begins to take over your life. Try these different suggestions and see what works best for you.

How Is Retail Therapy Different From a Shopping Addiction?

Retail therapy and shopping addiction can sometimes be used interchangeably in everyday conversations, but psychologists differentiate the two. A shopping addiction, known as compulsive buying disorder, is more extreme than casually participating in retail therapy from time to time.

Compulsive buying disorder is characterized by an inability to control shopping behaviors, constantly craving shopping, feeling guilty about purchases, and having dysfunctional emotional responses when unable to shop. Those dealing with a shopping addiction will often feel tension before a purchase, and then relief after it, followed by guilt.

What To Do If Retail Therapy Becomes a Shopping Addiction

So you try alternatives to distract yourself or limit your use of retail therapy, but it’s not working. You feel out of control about your compulsive need to shop. Reading this article and researching options is a great first step. Finding a professional to help is the next step. A therapist can help you recognize dysfunctional patterns and the deeper reasons you are using these behaviors.

Shopping will only provide temporary relief, it’s not a substitute for individual therapy. When thinking about working through deeper issues, Dr. Rice says “retail therapy is the tip of the iceberg, the part that we can see…If we address the root, the void, attack the hurdle head on, we have a much less likely probability of needing to fill in the gaps in dysfunctional ways.” Therapy can help address these gaps and help you approach them with healthier coping skills so you don’t need to rely on shopping anymore.

Persistent deeper problems cannot be solved by shopping alone and Talkspace therapists are here to help. Individual therapy with a licensed online therapist is likely a more productive use of your time and hard-earned money than relying on retail therapy. Most report that investing in therapy is one of the best purchases you will ever make.

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