What Is Shopping Therapy, And Is It Healthy?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated June 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Shopping therapy may also be known as retail therapy, which refers to using shopping to improve one's mood. Some people might enjoy going "window shopping" to look at items they want, even if they are not planning to purchase them. Others benefit from an emotional boost they may receive when spending money. 

While shopping can momentarily uplift your mood, psychologists do not recognize shopping therapy as a recognized form of therapy or treatment for a psychological disorder. In fact, if you are shopping compulsively to feel better, that may be a sign of an entirely different mental health concern: compulsive shopping disorder, also known as compulsive buying disorder.

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Is Shopping Therapy Affecting Your Life?

Why Retail Therapy May Be Harmful 

When a person is stressed out, they might give in to their need for immediate gratification. They can opt to do online shopping and get a hit of dopamine from shopping. Individuals often use retail therapy to manage or improve psychic ills, such as feeling sad or stressed. Although shopping is not an inherently unhealthy hobby or coping mechanism, when it is used for instant gratification or as a coping mechanism, it may lead to symptoms of behavioral addiction. These symptoms might include mental preoccupation, compulsiveness, and loss of control. In some cases, people may go into debt, lose money, or be unable to pay bills due to shopping compulsion or online shopping addiction.

What Research Tells Us About Shopping Therapy

Behavioral researchers have investigated shopping therapy to understand better why people may engage in it and the potential consequences. Studies have found that many people use shopping and browsing as a short lived habit to alleviate boredom and loneliness and to counteract uncomfortable or unwanted moods, such as residual sadness from adverse life events. 

Shopping therapy may be defined as behavior motivated by a desire to alleviate distress by using shopping as a substitute for dealing directly with an underlying emotional problem. 

Research notes that compulsive buying behaviors are common, with current estimates showing 1.8 to 16% of the nation measuring as compulsive shoppers.

Excessive buying sprees may be more common among women than men and more likely to affect younger people in their late teens and early twenties, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

How To Address A Compulsive Shopping Habit

Anxiety and depression may sometimes lead a person to develop compulsive shopping patterns, and help may be available. To ease anxiety and depression, a person may consider walking away from the shopping bags and instead practicing mindful movement, taking up a new hobby, staying connected with friends and family, and incorporating positive activities such as journaling into day-to-day life. 

There are several ways to help curb excessive spending through lifestyle changes. Such a strategic effort can include:

  • Setting aside a specific budget for purchasing 
  • Making a list of only the items you need and asking a friend or partner to purchase them using your card, or asking them to vet your purchase decisions beforehand
  • Waiting a day or two before purchasing an item you want
  • Window shopping, browsing online, placing items in your online cart, and making lists of potential purchases instead of buying
  • Avoiding shopping triggers such as Black Friday or Christmas Eve sales
  • Returning items purchased on a compulsive shopping spree

Although it can be challenging to change behavior at first, any step forward may have a positive impact. 

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How Therapy Might Support You 

Therapy can benefit people experiencing negative thoughts, which may lead to compulsive shopping habits. Many people may find that professional support and care allows them to process and make sense of their emotions in healthier ways, as unresolved feelings and experiences may lead to various mental health challenges. 

While you might not find a therapist specifically for shopping therapy, many therapists have experience treating compulsive or dependent behaviors such as shopping addiction. For example, a therapist treating someone with a tendency to spend money compulsively may help the individual understand their habits, urges, emotions, or thoughts. They can then offer healthier coping mechanisms and at-home assignments to help the person reduce their unwanted behaviors. 

Therapy is often a gradual process. A therapist can provide advice to promote healthier habits and coping mechanisms. Therapy can be used for many underlying mental health symptoms and conditions. Compassionate therapists work with their clients to begin healing unresolved issues and provide a non-judgmental space to grow and learn.

A therapist can help you form healthy, sustainable habits to cope with stress and negative emotions. For example, if you have noticed yourself shopping when stressed, spending beyond your means, or feeling disappointed by your spending habits, a therapist may work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan specific to your spending habits.

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Is Shopping Therapy Affecting Your Life?

Counseling Options

Those struggling with compulsive shopping or spending urges may benefit from counseling. You can find a counselor in your area or online. If you face barriers to treatment, such as symptoms of depression, difficulty leaving home, or cost, online therapy may help address some of these concerns

Many individuals gravitate toward online shopping to quickly increase "feel-good" hormones like dopamine. However, these feelings may be only temporary. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp may offer an affordable, long-lasting solution to distressing symptoms. In addition, one meta-analysis of 17 studies found that online therapy was more effective than in-person counseling in treating symptoms of conditions like depression, which may be a trigger for some who experience shopping dependency.  If you believe you may be exhibiting signs of a shopping dependency, reaching out to a mental health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment may benefit you. 

Takeaway

Though shopping may feel temporarily exciting or satisfying, compulsive shopping may not resolve underlying emotional issues. In addition, overspending can damage a person's financial stability. Therapy may be helpful if you struggle with shopping and spending habits. Consider reaching out to a counselor to gain further insight and compassionate support. 

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