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Do you go shopping to cope with stress?

12 November 2020 10:26

Do you check your smartphone continuously for messages? Or perhaps do the weekly shop with military precision? Maybe you always ensure the cutlery is perfectly lined up on the table? If you feel your shopping habits might be a little out of control, Sharon Begley has a few tips…

For many of us, shopping, at least beyond what’s needed to provide the necessities of life, can be an exciting, joyful, carefree indulgence, a splurge and a treat, a reward for a job well done or compensation meant to tip the balance of fair and unfair, just and unjust (My boss lit into me at today’s meeting; I deserve a new pair of sandals). For some excessive shoppers, the behaviour is a consequence not of a spur-of-the-moment impulse, but of a build-up of emotions: depression, anxiety, boredom, and anger were the most common. 

Closely related to shopping as a quest for a hedonic hit is shopping as a form of self-medication for boredom or depression, in which acquiring one more pretty thing assuages those and other painful emotions: I don’t have a date for Thursday night, but I have an amazing new pair of stilettos. Loneliness, anger, and feeling inadequate, rejected, frustrated, and hurt can all trigger a shopping binge. “Most of the people I treat say it distracts them from whatever pain or distress they feel,” said Terrence Shulman. Although the loneliness, anger, or hurt almost never have anything to do with shopping, shopping “acts like a soothing agent,” he said, especially for people who feel “I’m not enough unless I have enough.” A 2013 poll commissioned by the Washington Post found that 40 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men said they shop as a way to cope with stress. 

So, what can you do when you find yourself on the high street, contemplating another shopping trip? Begley recommends taking a page from April Benson’s programme and asking yourself a few questions before you go ahead and buy that new pair of stilettos:

  1. Why am I here? (where “here” is a retail website or a bricks and-mortar shop)
  2. How do I feel? If the answer is, “nervous about the fact that my only good suit is threadbare and I need to look presentable for tomorrow’s job interview,” or “stressed that I have literally nothing appropriate to wear to my friend’s wedding this weekend,” then a purchase is perfectly justified. If the answer is, “as if I’m about to explode like a shaken lemonade bottle if I don’t buy this pair of shoes that I know I don’t need,” then you’re likely being driven by a compulsion that’s leading you into trouble.
  3. Do I need this? See above. If the answer is anything short of job interview or wedding, continue to the next question.
  4. What if I wait? If the answer is, “I’ll look shabby for the job interview” (or wedding), then waiting doesn’t make sense. If the answer is, “I’ll explode with anxiety,” then try extending yourself into the future: imagine a future you who is besieged with even greater anxiety than the current you, a strategy that can defuse the present anxiety without making the purchase.
  5. How will I pay for it? In many cases the prospect of adding to your debt load provokes greater anxiety than forgoing the purchase. If so, focus on the emotions that come with that— how your heart will sink when you see your next credit card balance, how stressed you’ll feel as you figure out which bills to postpone paying, how mortified you’ll feel if you have to ask your spouse or family for financial help. Focusing on the negative emotions that will flood over you as a result of buying can swamp those you feel as a result of not buying. Analogously, people who have felt compelled to shoplift have been able to stop themselves by focusing on the terror they feel when they’re arrested or jailed, and the humiliation they suffer when they have to tell their friends and family.
  6. Where will I put it and what will I do with it? This can also help defuse present anxiety. Again, project yourself into the future; you’re home with your purchase, looking for a place to put it. If your hoard of shoes or shirts or dresses is already so immense—perhaps with many previous acquisitions still in their original wrapping or not used in some time—that the one you’re contemplating will be as noticeable as a teaspoon of water added to the Mediterranean Sea, focusing on that can also bleed away the anxiety compelling you to acquire it.