Spending as coping mechanism


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Julia Gerard, News Editor

Everyone has probably used the “I am only shopping because I am stressed” gimmick at some point in their lives, but it does raise the question: can spending money really brighten someone’s spirits?  

Retail therapy is essentially buying things that make a person feel happy in the moment, but the consequences of shopping in excess can weigh down an individual’s wallet.

This is a psychological disorder referred to as “oniomania,” otherwise known as compulsive buying disorder (CBD).

Addiction is characterized by a powerful and difficult to control urge to engage in a particular behavior,” psychology teacher Aaron Sterchi said. “So, oniomania is a brain disorder in which people get ‘hooked’ on the way shopping makes them feel. In other words, a shopping addict is experiencing the reward-response systems in their brain activating while they engage in the behavior.”

The reason why many individuals find themselves making smaller purchases is to lift their spirits in a time of distress. 

One study conducted by a Penn State researcher surveyed a group of regular shoppers, all of whom had bought themselves a treat in the past week, and found that 62 percent  of those purchases had been made in an effort to lift mood,” Elizabeth Scott from verywellmind.com said.

Senior Angelina Pardo recognizes that all of her purchases are not essential and her shopping habits affect  how she feels afterwards.

“I find myself buying more things I want than what I really need,” Pardo said. “I feel a little bad about it because I feel like I wasted my money.”

According to verywellmind.com a study focused on demographics of excessive shopping showed that women and girls in their late teens are the most prone to fall into this behavior, which can lead to debt and other financial problems. 

People who experience CBD often express a cognitive fixation on shopping, meaning that they have intrusive thoughts about it and experience stress and anxiety when they aren’t shopping,” Sterchi said. “This ties into the feeling of “relief” they will have when they do.”

When someone has pressure or stress placed on them, they tend to react differently to buying the products they enjoy rather than when they are content. Dopamine and serotonin are released in the brain, causing these sensations of joy. Spending money on one’s pleasure from time to time is harmless, but when the spending becomes excessive, that is when people run into problems. 

“Saving money is not the easiest task for me because I love to buy things I like,” Pardo said.

Experts agree that retail therapy is not a bad thing when done in moderation. It becomes an issue when the shopping becomes compulsive. Excessive shopping deals with behaviors such as problems with resisting purchasing of unneeded items, problems in daily life due to shopping, financial difficulties because of one’s purchases and spending too much time shopping or looking for unneeded items. 

So to shop or not to shop is a negotiation between our frontal cortex (logic) and our limbic system (feeling), and for an addict, their feelings will often win that negotiation process because they experience a sense of satisfaction and relief once they make the purchase,” Sterchi said. “In a literal sense, they feel bad and anxious before shopping, and then those feelings are released once they shop.”

Though many people shop to find little knick knacks that make them happy, people that heavily shop may run into financial and mental issues 

Those prone to compulsive buying can experience extreme levels of debt, anxiety and frustration, the feeling of loss of control, and conflict at home,” Scott said. 

Senior Michelle Salazar concurs on her shopping experiences.

“I basically go out shopping when I can,” Salazar said. “If I am going to the gym, I will stop by a store. If I am at work or school, I will shop online. Though, I work and use the money off of what I make from work [to shop.]”

A study taken in 2014 by the University of Michigan suggests that buying things that bring one joy can help the individual feel 40 times more in control of their life than if they were not shopping. This study also found that people who did choose to buy things that brought them happiness were three times less sad than those who did not. 

“The study suggests that when you’re feeling as if things aren’t going your way, getting exactly what you want can feel like a positive personal achievement,” Dr. Scott Bea from clevelandclininc.org said.

Salazar reflects on what actually happens when someone goes shopping.

“[Shopping] is like a reward,” Salazar said. “It gives me a rush of serotonin.”

Shopping often appeals to an  individual’s senses. Stores and online shops try to entice the shopper as much as possible so they will be their product. 

“Shopping and its sensory stimulation gets us to visualize positive outcomes,” Bea said. “Athletes, for example, have also found that this type of visualization can create positive anticipation and can reduce anxiety.”