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Retail Therapy: Benefits & How to Tell If It’s Gone Awry

July 15, 2022

It’s pretty difficult to explain the power of retail therapy to someone who doesn’t indulge in it. Browsing new products, comparing price points, pawing through sale displays, and finally swapping cash (or plastic!) for something bright, new, and shiny?

The experience is indescribable.

Thankfully, recent scientific evidence suggests shopping enthusiasts aren’t being overdramatic. Actual physical, mental, and chemical reactions do happen during the whole purchase process, and those reactions are what make it so addictive. Experts are even stating that retail therapy could have legitimate, science-backed benefits.

So let’s take a look into these reported benefits … as well as warning signs that indicate shopping has moved from therapeutic to downright obsessive.


Retail Therapy: Benefits


1. Helps with Transitions

Shopping, according to many experts, can be a source of mental preparation. When people shop, they often think about how they’re going to use the products they’re buying.

Think about what goes on in your mind when you buy new clothes. You mentally pair them with other pieces you own or you picture yourself wearing them in imagined scenarios. “I could wear those shoes to my interview next week,” for example. Or, “oh, that dress would be perfect for my date on Friday!

When we’re preparing for new stages or about to undergo major transitions, that’s the time many of us are inclined to start shopping! The visualization we do while shopping helps us unconsciously process what’s about to happen next.

2. Gives Us Something We Can Control

We often equate feelings of sadness, stress, and anxiety with the feeling of helplessness. We feel weak and overwhelmed when we’re faced with something we simply cannot control.

Studies show that the simple act of making choices while we’re shopping – “should I get it in red or in black?”, “would he like this style or this?” – can help us feel in control again.

In fact, a study done by the University of Michigan in 2014 shows that people who bought things they personally enjoyed were 40 times more likely to feel “in control” again than those who didn’t shop.

3. Positive Sensory Experience

Clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD., says that the “smell of something new” can create a “sensory experience that removes us from our own reality.”

Simply put, the physical act of shopping stimulates our senses in a positive way. The bright lights, the colorful displays, the aesthetic product alignment … everything is organized in a way that appeals to a passer-by’s senses i.e., scents, sounds, smells, visuals, etc.

This sensory stimulation, Dr. Bea says, gets us to “visualize positive outcomes,” which in turn makes us anticipate something positive—thereby reducing anxiety.

4. The Social Aspect

Human connection is a well-known antidote for emotional distress. Negative emotions are often (but not always!) exacerbated by loneliness and isolation. The presence of other people – even if we don’t even know them! – can help ground us. When we see other people doing something we’re doing (as is the case with shopping), there’s a sense of belonging that grounds us.

Again, regardless of our actual personal relationship with the people around us, those feelings are therapeutic.

5. A Dose of Dopamine

Many people experience a shot of dopamine – the chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure, excitement, and euphoria – even before they buy something. According to Dr. Bea, simply browsing through an online catalogue or checking out display windows can trigger the brain into releasing the feel-good neurotransmitter; because the prospect or possibility of obtaining something new can be just as satisfying as the act of actually purchasing it.


Retail Therapy: Backfired


As beneficial as retail therapy is, it also has the potential to backfire. So be cautious! Always keep in mind that shopping is:

A Distraction. In the moment, retail therapy acts as a good salve. It soothes whatever sting we’re feeling. However, the actual source of the sting still needs to be addressed.

Remember; painkillers don’t treat the wound!

A Potential Addiction. Like alcohol, shopping is an excellent indulgence in moderation. Small, manageable doses is key to making sure you don’t become a full-blown shopaholic. The whole point of shopping is being in control, so make sure it stays that way!

Financially Draining.If done irresponsibly, retail therapy can be just as expensive as actual therapy—and not even a fraction as effective!

If you avidly partake in retail therapy, then you should always exercise caution. Here are some signs that could indicate your retail therapy is going awry:

  • Refusing to look at credit card or bank statements
  • Lying about the actual price of purchases
  • Hiding purchases
  • Prioritizing shopping over other events
  • Getting mad/annoyed/irritated with something or someone preventing you from shopping

At the end of the day, retail therapy can be incredibly beneficial—if done responsibly and treated as a temporary coping mechanism. It should never be one’s long-term, go-to response/solution for the problems, setbacks, challenges, and inconveniences one might experience.

Moral of the story? Don’t abuse your credit card, but take comfort in knowing your addiction to shopping is scientifically legit!

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