The stress of stress shopping

When I lost my job because of COVID I was surprisingly calm. I’d only received a smidgen of severance pay and had little to no savings to fall back on - you’d think I’d be freaking out.

Nope. Instead, I jumped online and bought myself some new clothes for the next job (that I definitely didn’t have yet).

Most people getting fired in the middle of a global pandemic would - I don’t know - save their money. So why did I react the way that I did?

Well, I’ll have you know this wasn’t the first time I’d resorted to this coping mechanism during stressful times.

As it turns out, stress shopping (or, retail therapy) is a completely normal coping mechanism - but should it be?

Time to confront some demons - let’s look at why it feels so good to shop when we’re stressed.

The psychology of retail therapy

There are actually quite a few studies that have proven that shopping can indeed improve a bad mood. There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one, the shopping process during a time of stress makes you feel like you have more control over your environment, helping to reduce the anxiety about it. Anxiety, stress or sadness are emotions that are rooted in powerlessness, so when you pick the store and the garment, you’re able to feel like you’re getting some of that power back.

Shopping also taps into your dopamine reward system - aka your pleasure center. Dopamine helps you feel happy, and spikes when you’re considering buying something new. That new item serves as a ‘reward’.

Once you swipe that credit card and the item becomes your very own, many experience a ‘shopper’s high’ - a similar rush that comes with drinking or gambling. It’s this immediate gratification that makes people come back for more (and more and more).

Sounds like a little retail therapy isn’t all bad - but…

And there is a but…

While shopping can improve your mood, it can also be quite damaging if you make a habit of it. Most obviously, shopping frequently can be harmful to your wallet. It can put stress on your savings, or even put you in debt if you spend enough.

Making a habit of shopping as a defence mechanism is an issue. Defence mechanisms are what we do unconsciously to protect ourselves from painful thoughts or ideas (like losing a beloved job). So while shopping can help improve our mood, it is not helping us find a real, substantial solution to our problems.

Stress shopping can also quickly spiral into a compulsive shopping addiction. A compulsive shopper will buy things they don’t need and will feel like they’re unable to control their shopping - they might even feel the need to lie about or hide purchases (no, I’ve had this blouse forever, I just never wear it).

At the end of the day - retail therapy can be another form of over-consumption. The chronic purchasing of unneeded or unwanted garments leads to an excess of clothing in the closet. If you’re able to make that garment a part of your regular wardrobe, no harm done! But if it’s thrown out after just one or two wears (or no wears), that’s when we’re starting to put stress on the environment as well.

When clothes end up in the landfill, they stay there for a long time (like, 200 years). And as they decompose, they emit methane - a greenhouse gas that’s known to do some damage. Not so fun fact: Globally we produce 13 million tonnes of textile waste every year.

How to become a more conscientious shopper

So let’s say a couple of the above points are hitting home. You hide purchases from your S.O. and have some clothes in your closet that still have the price tag on… let’s talk solutions.

Step number one would be to admit that you might just be on the compulsive shopper spectrum (same, though) and figure out a solution to cope with your stressors a bit better. I can’t offer much advice beyond this, but I bet a good psychiatrist could!

Step two if you must shop, shop better. Really consider the garment you’re about to buy - will it enhance your existing wardrobe? Do you have something to wear with it already? Go all Marie Kondo on yourself - does it bring you joy?

Step three - go shopping in your own wardrobe. Can you make a new outfit with clothes you already own? Or can you find a garment that you haven’t worn in a while that could feel new to you now?

Finally, consider the alternatives. Shopping secondhand keeps clothes out of the landfill and reduces demand on brands to supply you new clothes every other week. Renting clothing also gives you the opportunity to refresh your wardrobe on a regular basis giving your brain that hit of dopamine that it so craves.

OK - demons confronted! If you have a bit of reprogramming to do, don’t worry - I’m right there with ya!

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