The Compulsion to Alleviate Stress by Shopping

In A Momentary Lapse of Reason J.D. focuses on the regret he felt after a recent shopping trip. During a particularly stressful time in his life he drove to a nearby mall and purchased a comic book he quickly deemed unnecessary. I immediately related to this post and his instinct to alleviate stress by shopping. I too have given into the compulsion.

A few years ago, after two visits to the emergency room and a number of stays in the hospital, I found myself spending hours on end with doctors who were unable to diagnose my ailments or provide appropriate treatment. My stress mounted, as month after month doctors continued to lack answers. I grew concerned about the quality of my life and the future of my health and well being.

I visited two to three doctors per week in search of answers. The stress heightened with every visit to a new physician. I was frightened of what the doctor would find and even more frightened that he/she would never discover the reason for my chronic pain and low stamina.

As a result of my initial diagnosis I was placed on anti-coagulants and went to my primary doctor’s office ever Wednesday for blood tests. After almost every visit I would head to Marshalls, which I passed on my way back home. On the first few visits I bought something new. One week I purchased a robe, the next week a fleece, the third week a soft blanket, but by the fourth week I walked out of Marshalls without buying anything at all.

I know that someone is going to ask why I would go to the store without ever intending to make a purchase. The answer is simple. For me, the act of shopping had nothing to do with attaining something new. I used shopping as a way to get my mind away from my troubles. The store was a place to escape my illness, my worries, and the questionable doctors who seemed unable to help me.

I vividly remember driving to the store after my appointments and spending thirty minutes walking around the racks. I was in a significant amount of pain during that time in my life and spending a mere thirty minutes in the store often left me weak and tired. Still, I stopped at Marshalls on my way home after almost every blood test. Some weeks I walked around the toy department, other weeks I searched for new kitchen gadgets or looked along the racks of dresses. Walking around the racks made me forget my troubles and helped me to feel normal all at the same time.

It took over six months and more than thirty consultations before I finally found a doctor who could diagnose my ailments. Six months after my first visit to the emergency room I underwent surgery to correct my medical problems. It has been nearly three years since that surgery and I continue to mend slowly and thankfully each day.

When I think back on that time in my life I am not disappointed or upset with myself for wandering the racks at Marshalls. Shopping provided me with a short, but much needed escape, from my troubles. Could a therapist have done the same? Possibly and perhaps much better, but at times I simply needed to stop focusing on my worries. Shopping provided me with the chance to focus on more trivial matters, like what toys my nephew might like to play with or what lamp might match my living room decor.

Still you might wonder why I went shopping? My health was poor and in all due honesty my options were limited. When I found the strength I often walked around my neighborhood, but on many occasions I found my mind wandering into scary places I did not want it to go. In the store I was distracted by the sights and sounds and unable to concentrate to deeply on the thoughts that disturbed me. Thirty minutes in a store seemed to provide the small dose of retail therapy I needed to recharge.

I am an introspective person by nature and I will admit that I thought long and hard about returning to Marshalls after each blood test. I set limits for myself and decided that I could shop as long as I kept my total purchase under $20. It was important for me to set a limit. It helped me feel in control of my life, at a time when I felt there was very little I could control.

I would certainly feel differently about this situation if I rang up large amounts of credit card debt while I was shopping, but as I mentioned, I often walked out of the store empty handed. In my case, shopping provided me with a short escape from reality. A way to momentarily ignore my pain.

Most importantly, if you turn to shopping as a way to alleviate stress the real question is this: Why do you turn to shopping to alleviate your stress and is there a better way to alleviate your stress the next time? Looking back I don’t necessarily regret my choice, but I do wish I had found a more constructive use of that time… perhaps drawing or painting.

5 thoughts on “The Compulsion to Alleviate Stress by Shopping”

  1. I enjoyed this post. I just wrote yesterday about how I had an itch to go shopping. You bring up a great point about stress. It makes me wonder why I really want to shop.

  2. Do you have an art gallery or museum nearby? If so you may find visiting and looking at new exhibits does the same as looking at new things in shops. Otherwise a trip to the public library to pick out books, CDs and DVDs to borrow would fill the same “hole”


  3. I found this article incredibly touching…and I can certainly relate. I frequently use shopping (even just window shopping), as a way to alleviate stress and just feel “normal”. It’s very hard, however, to stop yourself from buying things. I pretty much have to give myself the “do you really need this, or do you just want it as a pick-me-up because times are hard right now?” talk.

    I think it’s important to question why we’re mindlessly shopping, and I think it’s okay to indulge that “need” for distraction, within reason.

  4. @midwest chick — It took me a few weeks before I figured out why I went shopping. The next time you feel the urge to shop, try to stop and ask yourself what you're upset or stressed about.

    @shopping sherpa — The idea of going to an art gallery or a museum is a great one, but there isn't one close by. I like the idea of finding a place, other than the store, that would distract me from my thoughts.

    @rtc & grey — I definitely kept my shopping in control even in times of stress, but if a similar situation ever arises I'd like to do something more meaningful with my time. I think it would lift my spirits even more.


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