What is Retail Therapy? And Does It Do More Harm Than Good?

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

For better or worse, getting a “little treat” when we’re feeling down is most everyone’s go-to. It’s almost reflexive. Sometimes those treats are small and cheap like an iced coffee. Sometimes they entail a budget-blowing, all-day trip to an outlet mall.

Why do we turn to shopping to boost our moods? Most people call it “retail therapy.” Turns out, it’s not a completely illegitimate coping mechanism for stress.

We’re here to discuss a few things about retail therapy:

  • What it is
  • Why we do it
  • Whether it does more harm than good

Let’s start with what exactly we mean when we talk about retail therapy.

What is Retail Therapy?

Retail therapy is a colloquial term that just means making a purchase to cope with stress, anxiety, or any negative feelings.

These purchases can be anything, and many people usually have their go-tos. They can be those little treats like ice cream or other sweets. They can be things like makeup, knick knacks, clothing, or accessories.

Most people don’t think about it, but retail therapy can include experiences as well. Paying for a day pass to a museum, doing something adventurous like ziplining, or even going on vacation all count as retail therapy. 

Retail therapy can apply when you buy something truly spur-of-the-moment. You saw the ice cream shop and stopped in, or something you’ve been thinking about but resisted purchasing. It’s also something that can be very social.

Why We Turn to Retail Therapy

So many people turn to retail therapy for a mood boost. Why is this such a universal experience?


Our brains reward us for certain behaviors. It happens, appropriately, in the reward center of the brain, and is mostly driven by the neurotransmitter dopamine. When dopamine is released, we feel elated, at ease, and satisfied.

Many drugs trigger this system, but so do many actions. One of those actions is getting something you want. In short, retail therapy offers some sense of satisfaction or reward for our behavior.

This dopamine hit from buying something temporarily quells a lot of negative feelings, like anxiety.

It Helps You Feel In Control

Those who have addressed an anxiety disorder in counseling know that they may struggle to feel control of some parts of their lives. It happens to those without anxiety as well. 

Buying things helps us control this one, small piece of our life—but that’s often enough. We can feel more calm and less stressed about incredibly stressful situations when we can control just one thing, even if it’s unrelated to the situation at hand.

Related Articles: Stress Relief Techniques 

How Retail Therapy Can Help

Not only do we understand the reasoning behind retail therapy, we understand that there are truly some benefits to it. 

If it’s only occasionally, and it’s within your means, retail therapy is a fine way to find some joy in your day.

Saving Money is a Reward

A small compulsive buy can be helpful for a small pick-me-up, but so can buying something expensive you’ve been thinking about for a long time. The accomplishment of saving money only compounds the reward of getting something you want.

Sensory Satisfaction

Shopping itself can be relaxing, independent of any purchases you may make. The lights, the smells of new items or a food court, the thrum of the store all equate to satisfied senses. 

Retail therapy doesn’t just affect your five senses, but it satisfies other fundamental needs like socialization, exercise from walking, or even sunshine.

Also, simply seeing items you want can inspire that dopamine release that comes from having something you want or need. Nearly 70% of carts in online shopping are abandoned before checkout. That’s because those people have already satisfied that urge and can move on.

It Does Help Regain Control

Once again, any sense of control in stressful situations can alleviate anxiety. Even though it may not help resolve the issues that cause the stress, retail therapy may be able to  help you relax and calm down enough to work on those issues. 

How Retail Therapy Can Hurt

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the legitimacy of retail therapy is that it really is erroneous spending. Some of the most satisfying purchases are those little treats that we don’t truly need.

But there are a few other reasons to be cautious about it.

It Could Get Out of Hand and Turn Into Compulsive Shopping

Shopping addiction, or compulsive shopping, can have the same serious consequences as other behavioral addictions, like compulsive gambling. 

Behavioral addictions work similarly to drug addictions. That dopamine hit that moderated good behaviors give us can be intense enough that some people continue to “chase” it. They repeat those behaviors in search of another “high.”

What may have started as retail therapy can become compulsive shopping that leads to financial and relational strain. 

Related Article: How to Identify and Treat Addiction

You Need to Do Other Things to Fight Stress and Mental Unwellness

Once again, retail therapy is merely a coping mechanism. Coping mechanisms are good when utilized appropriately to return you to your emotional baseline. But they aren’t helpful when they replace legitimate treatment. This is called “avoidance coping.”

Avoidance coping is a band-aid solution. When you engage in avoidance coping, you’re addressing a mild symptom and denying the deeper issues. 

Retail therapy may make you feel good at the moment, but it’s by no means a treatment for actual mental health disorders or life issues you may be experiencing.

Are you struggling to rein in your spending or compulsive shopping behaviors? Talk to Inner Balance today about our personalized mental health counseling options. We help people just like you find meaning and create healthy habits. Stop using avoidance coping. 

Reach out to learn more about our variety of other counseling services.

Buyer’s Remorse

If we do things too compulsively, we run the risk of regretting it later. Because retail therapy often lets “want” trump “need,” it opens a lot of doors to feeling like you made the wrong choice. This remorse can lead to more stress or anxiety.

How Do I Find a Balance With Retail Therapy?

When it comes down to it, retail therapy is ok—to a point. As long as you’re aware that it’s not a proper “fix” for your stress, and what it can look like when it gets out of control, it’s a fine way to decompress.

Stick to Your Budget

66% of Americans report that money is a major stressor in their lives. Retail therapy when you’re already under financial strain is a slippery slope. No matter what your financial situation is like, you absolutely need to stick to your budget. Retail therapy should come from your “fun” money. If you go overboard with retail therapy, you may end up causing stress that you didn’t have before.

Say “No” Often

What is one surprising way that we also feel satisfied? Self-control. When self-control is a healthy habit, it can lead to reduced stress and more mental stability. Successfully resisting the impulse to spend can actually be just as exhilarating as getting the item you’ve been eyeing. It can help you feel strong and content. 

In addition, learning to say “no” helps you stick to budgets, and reduces financial stress.

Take Advantage of Online Shopping Carts

Remember how just seeing merchandise can satisfy the “buying” need? Be among the population that abandons their online shopping carts. This has two advantages. One, once again, you still get the dopamine rush when you just peruse merchandise. 

Two, you can save the cart and return to it after sitting with the idea of hitting “pay” for a while. You may find that you didn’t need that item, or you may find that you do want it after several days. The online shopping carts just give you time to make sure you’re doing what you want to.

Treat What Needs to Be Treated

Retail therapy is a coping mechanism. “Therapy” may be right there in the name, but it’s not meant to replace real counseling. In order to get the most out of any type of coping mechanism, it needs to be used occasionally to supplement therapy. 

Inner Balance Counseling can help make sure not only that your coping mechanisms like retail therapy are healthy, but that you’re getting help on deeper issues. Reach out to schedule a conversation about therapy for your stress, anxiety, habits, and anything else you want to let go of. 

Reach out. Show up. Feel better.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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