Retail Therapy is Real

By Amanda Tonoli

In times of high stress rather than turning to talking about my feelings or doing something productive like starting a new project, I — like many other people of this generation — shop.

People who shop to relieve themselves of whatever worries and stresses they have going on in their lives have even coined the name “retail therapy.” Is this a real form of therapy though? Does it have actual psychological value?

In “Is Retail Therapy for Real? 5 Ways Shopping is Actually Good for You,” published in TIME in April 2013, Kit Yarrow discusses the topic of retail therapy — which more than half of Americans admit to participating in.

“Studies show that our unconscious mind continues to work out problems while we’re engaged in a different activity, provided we don’t switch over into tricky multi-tasking — juggling several things at once and not focusing on anything deeply,” Yarrow said.

Often all we need is a little getaway from reality, a distraction even — whether we find that distraction on a palm-tree-laced beach or a shopping complex in Ohio is immaterial.

“Psychologists have found that people tend to shop the most leading up to big life transitions,” Simple. Thrifty. Living. — a personal finance website — said in “Can Shopping Help Anxiety? The Psychology Behind Retail Therapy,” published in The Huffington Post. “For example, Americans shop the most during their lifetime prior to getting married and having a child.”

Shopping asserts more control over some type of situation, the article continued, easing potential or already onset anxiety.

Shopping doesn’t even necessarily have to be done in person to serve as a diversion.

“Online shopping is increasingly mentioned as a type of mini mental vacation,” Yarrow said. “It’s a relatively mindless, relaxing activity, and since many times the browsing session ends without anything being purchased, it’s often harmless as well.”

When you use shopping as an outlet for your stress however, it can turn into a problem or, even worse, an addiction.

Simple. Thrifty. Living. errs on the side of caution when it comes to retail therapy, for it affects one’s finances and budget greatly. They urge us to watch out for the most widely used defense mechanism: denial.

“Many individuals drowning in credit card debt have high rates of denial, and continue to spend when they can’t afford to,” Simple. Thrifty. Living. said.

However, if your shopping habit isn’t in danger of leaving a smoking crater where your 401k used to be, there are some positive outcomes — like the social aspect.

“Since the dawn of human society, people have gone to the marketplace to connect with other people,” Yarrow said. “If there’s one antidote to emotional distress, it’s human connection. We’re a species that’s meant to be with others. Whether that takes place over dinner, at home, or at the mall, it’s therapeutic.”

Sometimes I find myself at the mall, either by myself or with a few friends, just appreciating being around other people — not to mention people watching is fantastic.

Often I wonder if that’s why so many people wander in and out of trendy coffee shops to do work that can be done at home. Is this one of their few outlets for social interaction with others? In this light, they no longer look like attention-seeking writers, only able to author novels if others are watching. They are merely being human beings, hard-wired to crave connections with others.