Retail therapy is considered by many experts to be a wasteful and ineffective method of coping with depression and anxiety. Although there are definitely more efficient and less financially devastating ways to deal with negative emotions, retail therapy can nevertheless be an effective form of self-treatment.
In addition to reducing sadness, some studies have found retail therapy to help people live longer in light doses, with elderly people who shop everyday being 27 percent less likely to die during the study’s nine-year period.
Although retail therapy is not a natural response for everyone (some people become financially austere in response to anxiety and depression), it has been shown to reduce sadness for some. Whether or not a person is likely to engage in retail therapy has much to do with the way they perceive certain objects.
Sadness is associated with a lack of control more than anger or any other negative emotion, with people affected by it tending to view life events as determined by other people’s wishes or left to chance. Shopping allows the person a sense of choice and personal control over something, whether it is what to buy or where to buy it. Considering research has suggested that exercising choice can increase a sense of control, it makes sense that shopping can reduce sadness in the same way.
However, this begs the question of whether it is shopping that is therapeutic or the buying itself. A recent study conducted at the University of Michigan put that very idea to the test, subjecting participants to a clip from a sad movie. After watching the death scene, participants were presented with a dozen products such as a board game, mini-speakers and a wine decanter. The study split the people up into two groups – choosers or browsers. Choosers were asked to hypothetically choose which four products they were most likely to buy while browsers were asked to indicate four products that they would use when traveling. Since some products such as the wine decanter were not appropriate for travel, choosers had a greater degree of autonomy.
The emotions of the participants were rated at the beginning and end of the experiment, with all participants ending up sadder after watching the depressing movie clip. However, the prevalence of sadness amongst the choosers was less than the browsing group since they enjoyed a greater sense of control over the selection process, allowing them to gain back some of the control lost while being subjected to the movie clip. Since none of the participants actually received any objects that they selected, this implies that the process of selection itself can alleviate symptoms of depression.
Reasons people use retail therapy
If merely simulating shopping can reduce sadness, then can’t people suffering from a retail compulsion simply hypothetically buy things? Although this would work in theory, being more similar to the compulsive behavior associated with video game addiction in teens,there are many reasons other than a greater sense of control or mastery that people are drawn to retail therapy.
One of the most common reasons people turn to retail therapy is to enhance themselves. Depression causes people to turn their attention inwards, criticizing and devaluing themselves. The act of purchasing something increases self-confidence by creating the perception that we are enhanced in some way by acquiring the new object.
Some researchers have posited the idea that people tend to perceive everything as being more valuable than what they have when they are depressed. In the aforementioned study where participants were subjected to a depressing video clip, they were on average three times more likely to buy the objects they chose than before. This suggests a greater valuation of the objects while the person is depressed.
Another reason people employ retail therapy as a form of coping is to visualize things. Visualization or planning one’s future is a proven method of stress reduction and boosting performance. When someone shops, they are not only acquiring new items for themselves but planning out the situations that that they will need them for. This process allows the person to clear their mind of the clutter that is responsible for their anxiety, increasing their focus and reducing stress.
Shopping malls and marketplaces provide a sense of connection and emotional support, even if the person is alone and not interacting with anyone besides sales people. The sycophantic sales tactics that many sales people use can also be attributed to the reduction of anxiety and depression that shopping can provide.
Although beneficial in small amounts, retail therapy has the potential to cause damage financially and interpersonally. If you feel that you or a loved one is suffering from a retail therapy compulsion or would like to learn more about therapy in general, feel free to check the reviews on Sovereign Health’s Adolescent Program website, or contact the Admissions Team at 866-615-7266.