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Why People Use Retail Therapy As a Coping Mechanism

Expertly reviewed by Dexter Macalintal, MD · Internal or General Medicine

Written by China Logarta · Updated Apr 28, 2023

    Why People Use Retail Therapy As a Coping Mechanism

    Everyone can relate to the warm feeling of pleasure that spreads when a package you’ve been waiting for arrives. Whether it’s an article of clothing or a gadget that comes in the mail, no one can deny that shopping makes us feel good. People didn’t know what to expect because COVID-19 came out of the left field. We lost our sense of control amid the global health crisis. Using retail therapy as coping mechanism seemed to alleviate those feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress.

    Coping mechanisms

    A study found that developing countries such as the Philippines were affected the most due to COVID-19. The lockdown situation impacted mental health; extensions only made it worse. It exacerbated symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety, particularly in young adults. Distressing situations often precipitate the need for coping strategies, which describe the ways by which a person responds to stress.

    There are several coping styles:

  • Problem-focused: Refers to active coping (e.g., planning, stopping other activities that could take away focus from the problem)
  • Emotion-focused: Geared toward minimizing negative emotions (e.g., positive reframing, acceptance, humor)
  • Meaning-focused: Using cognitive techniques to decipher the meaning of the situation
  • Social coping: Seeking emotional support or other forms of support from your community
  • Retail therapy as coping mechanism can be seen through the observed rise in online shopping since the pandemic’s emergence.

    How retail therapy helps

    Shopping, online or otherwise, engages the senses. Lights, colors, and shapes combine to provide an experience that takes us away, albeit temporarily, from our current reality. It helps us visualize positive outcomes through positive anticipation. Merely envisaging a treat or a reward also releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of pleasure and happiness. Actually purchasing something isn’t the only way to release dopamine either – just filling up your online shopping cart already gives a feeling of satisfaction. From another vantage point, saving up money at the prospect of buying something can build anticipation and release dopamine. 

    Research shows that retail therapy as coping mechanism is so popular because of the sense of control and the ability to soothe sad feelings. Situations or factors out of our control can bring about sadness. The decisions we are able to make with regards to purchases assuages this negative emotion.

    When it becomes a problem

    Retail therapy as coping mechanism only turns into a cause for concern when it becomes second nature to you to deal with feelings of anxiety, stress or even loss. Shopping addiction goes by many names: compulsive buying disorder (CBD), buying-shopping disorder (BSD), or pathological buying. 

    This is related to feelings of insignificance or loss of power and is characterized by frequent buying. It is also linked to other impulse control disorders like sex addiction or gambling addiction. People with such disorders may even have blackout episodes where they don’t even remember buying something. 

    Signs of impulsive buying

    The following are behaviors to watch out for if you suspect yourself or a loved one of having a shopping addiction:

    • Difficulty resisting buying unnecessarily
    • Spending time researching items that are not needed
    • Financial difficulties
    • Disruption of work, school, or home life due to uncontrollable spending

    Curbing shopping impulses

    Using retail therapy as coping mechanism can become a serious problem. But when it does, it is usually caused by underlying issues. Therapy and joining support groups can help you curb this bad habit, while addressing the root causes.

    A study suggested the role of moderate thinking in staying on top of impulse buying. Moderate thinking refers to the practice of pondering the situation from different perspectives. This highlights the need to avoid extremes and opt for moderation. The study also showed that using moderate thinking helped a person achieve some measure of self-control.

    Key Takeaway

    Retail therapy as coping mechanism is effective because of the effect it has on the brain. It produces dopamine, which spurs feelings of joy and satisfaction. Since the pandemic began, online shopping skyrocketed. While there’s nothing wrong with rewarding or treating oneself through shopping, it’s important to make sure it doesn’t become a destructive habit.

    Learn more about a Healthy Mind here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Expertly reviewed by

    Dexter Macalintal, MD

    Internal or General Medicine

    Written by China Logarta · Updated Apr 28, 2023

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