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How to stop online shopping: what is emotional spending and how to overcome it

What is emotional spending?

There’s nothing wrong with treating ourselves every now and then. A spot of “retail therapy” can even do us some good, providing a much-needed momentary lift. But momentary is exactly what it is. The rush or “high” we get from shopping can only ever be short-lived. 

For this reason, the difference between healthy spending and shopping addiction comes down to how we use it – and the resulting impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Shopping turns dangerous when we use it as a coping mechanism to regulate our emotions – hence the term emotional spending. Some people shop to mask difficult emotions like stress, boredom, anxiety and low self-esteem. But shopping will never be able to provide us with long-term relief from these kinds of struggles. 

Instead, after the momentary “rush”, most people who compulsively spend are left with an overwhelming sense of guilt which leaves them feeling much worse in the long run.

Shopping addiction symptoms – signs you might be emotional spending

You spend money when you shouldn’t – are you consistently spending beyond your budget but just “can’t help it”? When money worries feel overwhelming, we might find ourselves doing the opposite of what we should be doing. Overspending can serve as a distraction from the issue at hand.

You feel guilty afterwards – emotional spending tends to follow a vicious cycle of feeling down or upset, shopping to feel better, followed by feelings of guilt, leaving you feeling much worse in the long run.

You can’t stop thinking about shopping – obsessive thoughts about what you’re going to buy next is a signal that shopping is becoming problematic for you.

It’s impacting your relationships – your partner, friends or family members have expressed concern about your shopping habits.

You’re running into more and more debt – but still can’t hold yourself back from spending.

Online shopping is your only “coping mechanism” when you’re feeling low or anxious – it’s important to have a wide range of healthy self-care strategies for when we’re feeling down or upset.

What are the causes of compulsive shopping?

Compulsive shopping is rooted in the brain’s pleasure-reward system.

Shopping gives us a dopamine “high”, in much the same way as drugs like cocaine, opiates and nicotine. This is why, for some people, it can become highly addictive.

Research from Stanford University has shown that when we see pictures of things we’d like to buy, the region of our brain associated with the release of dopamine is activated.

Dopamine plays a key role in driving our behaviour towards pleasurable goals. It’s released whenever we experience something exciting or new. This means that just looking at something (we like) online provides us with almost instant gratification. Over time, these highs can become addictive.

How to overcome shopping addiction

Delete shopping apps from your phone and unsubscribe from their emails – If you make the realisation that certain apps are increasing the temptation to shop, delete them. It’s a form of self-care to acknowledge that something is causing you harm and to take action against it.

Before buying something, weigh up the pros and cons – “shopper’s high” can interfere with healthy decision-making. Write a list of pros and cons and mull it over so you know you’re spending for the right reasons.

Get to know your triggers – what emotions are driving you to shop? Do you shop after speaking to a particular family member? Is it after an argument with your partner? When you’re feeling lonely? When you’re bored and scrolling through Instagram? Getting an idea of your triggers will help you understand what emotions you’re trying to mask with your shopping.

Consider other areas of life that can be addressed – sometimes when we’re unhappy – say, in a job or a relationship – we shop to add some excitement into our lives and to make ourselves feel better.

Commit to going “cold turkey” – set yourself a challenge of not buying anything new for a whole month. Monthly challenges are a great way to kick-start healthy habits.

Connect with your values – what qualities do you value? What kind of person do you want to be? What would you like to be remembered for? Connecting with our values steers us away from the superficial things in life and towards the things that really matter to us.

Compulsive spending and therapy – how can it help?

Compulsive spending is often tied into mental health issues like anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Because of this, it’s really important to treat the underlying issue/s. A therapist will be able to help you understand your triggers, and explore the emotions you’re trying to avoid through your shopping. They’ll teach you healthier ways of dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, and how to ride out your urges without acting on them.