The Truth and Danger of Retail Therapy

The claim to need to participate in retail therapy has become something of a comic mantra. Bad day? Go shopping. Work stress? Go shopping. Kids or spouse bugging you? Shopping’s the answer – right? No, not really.

Although there is some truth to the positive feelings we can enjoy when shopping, there can also be dark side to the so-called “retail therapy.” The treat-yourself feeling or impression that you have accomplished something through your purchases is generally short-lived and can have many other less desirable repercussions. And with the holidays approaching there are a number of reasons why people may turn to retail therapy as a means for boosting their mood. Not to mention plenty of temptation and opportunity for over-spending.

Why Retail Therapy Works – Kind Of

For most of us purchasing something new that we want, or that we want to give someone else, provides a sense of satisfaction and achievement. You look for it, you find it, you want it, you get it, and now it’s yours – a bit like the thrill of the hunt.

Those positive feelings, however, often have less to do with the thing you just found and more to do with the feelings of mastery and control that can come through the purchase. When we are feeling stressed or unhappy we are also often feeling helpless to change certain aspects of our lives. Hurt, pain, work issues, etc. don’t go away just because we want them to – they take time and certain actions that we sometimes don’t want to face. Shopping, however, and the “I want it – I bought it” action can give us a quick, but temporary feeling of being in control and fuel a “no one can take this away from me – I own it” mindset.

Shopping can also provide a kind of high. The I want it, I got it action triggers a reward response that creates positive feelings. Unfortunately, this high is short-lived which can mean that once it fades there’s a need to recreate it and buy more stuff.

Retail Therapy Problems

This cycle of shop, feel good, shop, feel good which we refer to as retail therapy doesn’t work as a long-term solution to problems. In fact, it can sometimes mask deeper problems that really need to be dealt with directly. Much like alcoholics can use drinking to avoid facing problems, or a drug addict uses getting high as a form of escape, shopping for some can be a way to provide a reprieve from the issues in their life.

One of the biggest problems with retail therapy is the slippery slope from occasional shopping into compulsive overspending and the money issues that it can create. When people go from a little splurge here and there, to accumulating credit card debt, falling behind on regular bills, or hiding purchases and being secretive about behavior, shopping is no longer an occasional mood lifter – it’s a problem that destroy lives and relationships.

This can be a real risk for people who are trying to avoid problems that won’t resolve on their own. Depression, anxiety, and marital or family problems won’t be solved by purchasing a new TV or outfit. And you are much more likely to make things worse by being irresponsible with financial resources.

Shopping Isn’t Always Bad

It’s not all bad news though. In moderation shopping can produce some positive mental effects. There are circumstances where it truly does boost a mood in a healthy way and provide needed relief.

Shopping can be a social activity as well, and not just because you can go with friends. Being out at a mall or store provides a communal experience that can make us feel part of something. That feeling of being part of a group – even if they are strangers – can lift spirits and create a more positive perspective on life.

Just the act of shopping – not necessarily spending – can also be therapeutic. This can be true of online shopping as well as window shopping. The mindless act of browsing, considering different products and items, and weighing the pros and cons of a purchase can provide a needed distraction from other more stressful situations.

When it comes to the much lauded “retail therapy” there is, however, a real question of balance. Most will tell you it’s an easy, innocent way to relieve stress and take a break from their problems. While that can be the case in moderation, there are plenty of people who have only created additional problems by over-indulging. Bottom line, if you are looking at shopping as your daily, or even weekly therapy, there’s likely something bigger going on that you need to deal with in a healthier way before you make things worse for yourself.

Photo: IStock

Back to Top