Can Retail Therapy Actually Be Helpful?

"Retail therapy" is a popular term for shopping to soothe or lift your mood. It's motivated by a desire to feel better rather than to meet a need, like grocery shopping. This activity may also be called comfort buying, stress shopping, or compensative buying.

Retail therapy doesn't have to be a guilty pleasure, though. It can be a relaxing, empowering experience on occasion.

This article will discuss some of the benefits of retail therapy as well as ways to recognize and control compulsive shopping.

young woman unpacking online purchase

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

What Happens in the Brain During Retail Therapy?

Endorphins are neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that send signals throughout the brain and nervous system. They help reduce the sensation of pain and promote feelings of pleasure.

Retail therapy involves elements of expectancy and surprise, which trigger an endorphin release.

Endorphins also work with dopamine, another neurotransmitter known as the "happy hormone." So, each new shopping adventure unleashes more mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain and body.

Retail Therapy vs. Shopping Addiction

"Retail therapy" can get confused with "shopping addiction," but these terms have different meanings.

During retail therapy, you are in control of your spending and feel satisfied with your decision to buy or not to buy. Shopping addiction makes you want to keep buying things, even if you know you shouldn’t. Buyer's remorse—a sense of regret after making a purchase—usually follows.

About 6%–8% of shoppers are compulsive buyers.

Signs of Retail Therapy

There is a fine line between retail therapy and shopping addiction. Here are signs that retail therapy may be going too far:

  • Spending excessive time thinking about or looking for items you don't need
  • Experiencing money problems due to uncontrolled buying
  • Going through relationship difficulties due to excessive spending
  • Having an urge to keep buying similar items
  • Neglecting work, school, or family responsibilities to shop needlessly

Risk Factors

Certain behaviors can indicate a shopping addiction. People at risk are often:

  • Constantly wanting something new
  • Easily bored
  • Pessimistic
  • Dependent on social recognition or approval
  • Secretive or guilty about purchases
  • Dealing with co-occurring mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, or impulse control disorders

Treatment

It may be hard to acknowledge excessive spending as an illness. Celebrities and social media often celebrate or joke about overspending. However, many mental health professionals see compulsive buying disorder as a type of behavioral addiction or impulse control disorder.

If this is an issue for you, you can learn to manage your shopping urges. A therapist can help you uncover your emotional causes and equip you with more helpful coping skills.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Benefits

Retail therapy has some benefits. These include:

  • Confidence: A little retail therapy can increase your self-confidence. It may also broaden your perspective to see more ways to enhance your life or the lives of those you care about.
  • Personal control: Retail therapy can help restore a sense of personal control and stave off lingering sadness. Making your own purchases also may reduce feelings of helplessness that cause despair.
  • Fueling imagination: Shopping can spark your imagination with concrete images, smells, and textures of objects you want. It can encourage you to think creatively and believe that you can improve your life in some way.

Drawbacks

Too much of a good thing can become harmful for some people. Retail therapy can easily go overboard, taking your money, time, and energy away from what really matters. Drawbacks include:

  • Avoidance coping: Retail therapy might be an avoidance coping mechanism. Avoidance coping is a constant tendency to distract yourself from stressful situations. Avoiding difficulties temporarily with shopping may seem like a quick, pain-free solution at first. Unfortunately, this could increase anxiety instead.
  • Compulsive buying: Retail therapy can be a gateway to compulsive buying, a form of addiction. Compulsive buying is repeatedly purchasing items to deal with negative feelings or events.

Similarities Between Retail Therapy and Substance Use Disorder

Excessive retail therapy and substance use disorder share similar processes, including:

  • Buying things to ease emotional tension or boredom
  • Feeling a "high" with a purchase, then feeling regret almost immediately afterward
  • Having a strong urge to buy something new to mask the feelings of regret

Shopping online makes it easier to hide this behavior, just as people with other addictions try to conceal their actions.

Is Retail Therapy Good for You?

Whether retail therapy is good for you depends on your financial and emotional situation.

An occasional indulgence within your means is not normally a problem. However, when shopping becomes your way of proving your self-worth, you may have a deeper issue to address. If shopping triggers more anxiety or endangers your finances or relationships, retail therapy is hurting you.

Helpline

If you or a loved one is struggling with a shopping addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Healthier Alternatives

Boosting your mood doesn't always require more shopping. You can activate your "feel good" hormones with these free or low-cost options:

  • Yoga and meditation: Yoga and meditation can release endorphins and help slow the aging process.
  • Exercise: Physical activity can enhance mood and help strengthen your heart, bones, and digestive system.
  • Sunshine: The ultraviolet (UV) light in sunlight may increase your levels of mood-boosting hormones.
  • Laughing: Laughter can lower levels of stress-making hormones, ease anxiety symptoms, and improve self-esteem.
  • Aromatherapy: Fragrant essential oils, candles, or bath products may help decrease anxiety, promote relaxation, and encourage endorphin release.
  • Moving to music: Nodding your head or dancing in response to music rhythms can release more endorphins into your system. 
  • Sex: Sexual stimulation and orgasm may help produce more endorphins in the body.
  • Avoiding tobacco and drugs: Quitting tobacco and substance misuse may improve overall mood. 

Summary

Retail therapy is an emotionally driven act of buying for pleasure. It is a way to ease distress or enjoy doing and having something different.

Retail therapy may activate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins that improve your mood. However, it is easy to get hooked on the rush that comes with shopping for new items. Be aware of unreasonable urges to shop constantly in spite of negative consequences, and discuss them with your healthcare provider or therapist.

Nature, music, exercise, and bonding with loved ones can be therapy, too. These activities save you money and enhance your physical health and relationships.

A Word From Verywell

We all need to buy things to live in today's society, including clothes, food, toiletries, and other necessities. It's healthy and normal to buy items for pleasure, as well. However, if you find yourself buying things you don't need, items that are out of your budget, or an excessive number of items, you may be treating yourself to a little too much retail therapy, which can be problematic.

If you are concerned about your spending habits, talking to a mental health professional can help.

Mental Health Helpline

If you or a loved one are struggling with compulsive shopping, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you increase endorphins naturally?

    You can boost your endorphin levels naturally in these and many other ways:

    • Walk outside for a few minutes each day if possible.
    • Practice gratitude.
    • Perform random acts of kindness.
    • Find free or low-cost activities to do at home, in your community, or online with family or friends.
  • How do you create a budget?

    Start budgeting by listing your income—how much money you earn or receive, and how frequently you are paid. Next, list your bills including utilities, groceries, cell phone service, credit cards, and more.

    Subtract your expenses from your income to determine how much, if any, you have left over each month.

  • How do you stick to a budget?

    Understand why you are budgeting: to study your cash flows, get spending under control, or prepare for a major expense or retirement. Commit not to spend over a certain amount each month on impulsive purchases, and watch the savings add up.

    You can use a variety of online templates and apps to help you visualize how your money behavior contributes to your financial well-being.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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