Well-Being//

Why We Shop When We’re Stressed and What to Do Instead

There are more effective (and wallet-friendly) ways of being in control.

LuckyVector/Shutterstock
LuckyVector/Shutterstock

Despite coming of age in the ‘90s, I’ve never had a big attachment to malls. Maybe it’s because I started working in one at the age of 15. But even when I was a mall visitor rather than mall worker, I didn’t really see the appeal. Looking at clothes I couldn’t afford and running the risk of bumping into the popular kids from school? No, thank you. All of this is to say that I never really thought of myself as a “shopping” person.

Flash forward to today, when I frequently find myself shopping — or more accurately, browsing — online when I’m feeling stressed. Everything in the world may feel out of my control, but with just a few clicks, I could be the proud owner of a $6 drain guard for my kitchen sink. (Take that slippery food scraps.) And just like that, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and a little less anxious.

Shopping-while-stressed is fairly common. According to a 2013 survey, nearly one-in-three Americans turns to retail therapy to deal with stress. But why does it feel so good?

First, it’s a distraction, Dion Metzger, M.D., a psychiatrist practicing in Atlanta tells Thrive. This makes sense, because if you’re sifting through racks or scrolling through pages of clothes, you’re less likely to be focused on the stressor.

Second, it provides instant gratification. “It’s like eating a bowl of ice cream when you’re sad,” Metzger explains. “It satisfies a sweet craving and temporarily makes you feel better. Shopping has the same effect. You buy something new and it makes you feel good, temporarily.” There is a good reason for this: shopping floods the brain with dopamine — the same chemical released through some drugs that increases pleasure and gives us an overall sense of well-being, Alisa Ruby Bash, Psy.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Malibu, CA tells Thrive.

Along the same lines, the act of searching for something and finding it can be extremely fulfilling. “And with a new purchase comes the hopes and dreams of a new future,” Bash explains. “Like a child with a new toy, we are usually excited with our new purchase for a period of time and feel fulfilled.”

Finally, people stress shop is because they feel it’s justified. It can be easy to think, “I had a rough day so I deserve these shoes.” According to Metzger, our stress gives us a green light to shop and often overspend. But, perhaps surprisingly, we don’t tend to indulge on luxury items, a 2016 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found. Instead, we opt for practical purchases that are more functional in nature — like screwdrivers, laundry detergent, or $6 drain guards — because these items are associated with problem solving and add to our sense of control. In other words, you might think you deserve new shoes, but you’re more likely going to buy comfortable sneakers than high-end heels.

Alternatives to shopping while stressed

If you find yourself slipping into the pattern of managing stress with shopping, know that there are plenty of other satisfying activities you can do instead. Even if we feel compelled to purchase more practical items, there can still be guilt or shame associated with stress shopping, — not to mention depleted bank accounts — which, Bash notes, could result in even more stress. Here are a few alternatives:

Move your body

If, like Carrie Bradshaw, shopping is your cardio, the good news is that there are plenty of other forms of exercise you can do that cost a lot less. According to Metzger, a good workout has the same benefits of providing instant gratification and a distraction, but it burns calories instead of your wallet. Bash recommends running, biking, hiking, swimming, walking, or other physical forms of exercise to shift you out of stress mode. Don’t have time for dedicated exercise? It’s totally possible to sneak it in throughout your day when you run for the bus, vacuum the house, or take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Tap into mindfulness

Mindful practices like yoga and meditation have been around since ancient times for a good reason: they work. We now understand more of the science behind why they’re so effective, and know that taking the time to meditate can help clear our minds and reduce our stress levels.

Do something creative

For starters, being creative can be extremely rewarding, Bash explains. Whether it’s art, music, writing, cooking, acting, or dancing, allowing ourselves to express our creativity can help create a sense of calm and flow more than most things. And similar to shopping, creating puts you in total control of something, which can help with stress.

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