To cope with stress and anxiety, NMSU student Dolores Melchor practices retail therapy for exactly the reasons the name suggests, therapeutic release. Like many individuals, Melchor attempts to find an external fix to release internal distress.
“I usually do retail therapy when I’m stressed or anxious, but I try not to do it super often because it can be expensive, so it’s only when I’ve had a really bad week,” Melchor said.
Not only can “retail therapy” be expensive, it can also become dangerous and lead to addictive behaviors. While many addictive behaviors involve substance use, not all of them do. Searching for a temporary fix of any kind can lead to the development of addictive behaviors, from using opioids, to smoking cigarettes, to buying the latest Coach bag.
While retail therapy can start off by occasionally treating yourself to a new item, it can become a financial strain and be destructive to mental health as well. It turns out there’s a well-known chemical that’s at least partly to blame for compulsive shopping. That chemical is dopamine. Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter that makes you feel good, and it can be released into the brain during a satisfying purchase. Naturally, this chemical release creates a desire to continue engaging in the behaviors that deliver the dopamine.
Feeding this desire can initiate a compulsive buying disorder known, clinically, as oniomania. Oniomania stems from the Greek word “onios” meaning, “for sale,” and mania meaning “insanity.” Oniomania is defined as the obsessive and uncontrollable urge to buy things.
A 2017 study on compulsive buying explains that this type of consumer behavior can result in financial and legal problems including the accumulation of large debts. Data analytics from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show how even with inflation on the rise, consumers are continuing to spend.
Another study on consumer psychology explains that one reason shopping makes us feel better is it restores a feeling of control over one’s environment, which can reduce feelings of sadness. Moreover, the anticipation leading up to making a purchase and even the thought of rewarding oneself is enough to release dopamine. For some, the anticipation alone is enough, but for many it is not. Melchor said it is important to set boundaries by controlling these urges, and avoiding losing control and then experiencing buyer’s remorse.
“While retail therapy can start off by occasionally treating yourself to a new item, it can become a financial strain and be destructive to mental health as well.”
“I definitely budget for [retail therapy] just because I don’t want to have to go buy something, try and make myself feel better, and then once I actually buy it it’s like oh, I just spent all this money,” Melchor said. “So, I try to budget for it. That way I don’t have to feel bummed out after I make the final purchase.”
Advertising agencies target individuals by influencing them to buy certain items so they feel adequate and accepted by society, especially fashion companies. Staying up to date with fashion trends is also associated with dopamine boosts. Feeling the urge to buy these unnecessary items can stem from materialism. The Statista Digital Market Outlook estimates that revenue from online retail apparel and accessories sales in the United States will increase from $183.6 billion in 2022 to over $300 billion by 2027.
Financial burdens and mental health crises are not the only consequences that can result from these short-lived feelings of release. Many consumers are purchasing fast fashion, a relative newcomer in the fashion industry that is causing detrimental harm to the environment.
Kelley Coffeen, NMSU fashion merchandising and design professor and co-adviser of the Aggie Fashion Club, explained that fast fashion companies rely on cheap materials, cheap labor and difficult work environments.
“Social media is constantly telling us we need new items in our wardrobe to be trendy, which is very challenging for consumers of fast fashion,” Coffeen said. “When you do not have a lot invested in a clothing item it is easier to get rid of it and buy it again. That is why we have so many textiles in our landfills.”
Fast fashion is often hard to resist for a shopping addict. Melchor said she thinks a solution to this could be to stop following fashion trends.
“People tend to buy products that match trends, and trends tend to come and go so quickly, so I think it’s kind of important to find your own style and match things that are personal to you,” Melchor said. “That way you are buying something you would enjoy for a longer time rather than once the trend fades out.”
Retail therapy is common among consumers, but can be a gateway to oniomania. As consumer culture feeds further into fast fashion, consumer purchasing habits are having a negative effect on the planet, too.
To learn more about compulsive buying disorder, its symptoms, or to get help, visit Mental Health America. Also, learn more about online shopping addiction and other behavioral addictions by visiting the Addiction Center online. NMSU’s Fashion Merchandising and Design department also has a video on how to create a capsule wardrobe, a sustainable alternative to fast fashion.