women using lap top with phone in her hand

Online Shopping Addiction: Help, I can’t stop spending!

A line has cultivated outside my local post office, the time is five minutes to nine, a Saturday. I turn over the two blue slips in my hand unsure about what exactly is waiting for me in the holding area of the post office this morning. I am calm, and excited. Hello again, the lady behind the counter says. It is true to say my Saturday mornings’ have developed a pattern. I visit the market for flowers, seasonal vegetables, fat cloves of garlic and walk around the corner to the post office with slips that have been left for me throughout the week from all my various online spending ventures. While she looks for my parcels, I swivel around to take in the other people at the counter who are all picking up packages of their own.

Picking up parcels at the post office is not as innocent as it looks.

Australians have demonstrated a noticeable increase in online shopping throughout the various lockdown’s of 2020; an increase which has been steadily maintained compared to 2019’s pre-covid levels.  This can be explained by the dopamine reward system and researchers have good reason to believe it has been hijacked.

Online shopping stimulates our brains reward system, producing dopamine “hits” that can quickly become addictive.

One man, three back in the line, is holding a box which has been ripped open enthusiastically. His leg jolts impatiently on the spot as he looks into the distance in disillusion. This, I assume, is a purchase gone horribly awry. My parcels, I learn, are a set of green checkerboard towels and a pair of leather clogs. It’s Winter and I know full well these shoes will not emerge from my house for months. I feel a little guilty, though mostly indifferent. Next! the woman behind the counter exclaims to a young man holding a blue slip.

So, how to know when your online shopping has gotten out of hand?

Similar to any behaviour, online shopping exists on a spectrum. Researchers caution there is a line between a bit of ‘retail therapy’, which looks like an occasional pick-me-up and can be a positive exercise when performed mindfully and in moderation. On the other side of the line is what they refer to as ‘emotional spending’, where the shopping is used as a coping mechanism to regulate underlying emotions. Think stress, boredom, anxiety and low self-esteem.

According to my university lecturer, shopping gives us a dopamine high in the same way highly addictive drugs like caffeine, cocaine and nicotine might. Research from the University of Stanford revealed that when we see images of appealing things, things we might like to own, the brain region commonly associated with the release of dopamine lights up like Christmas.

But neuromarketing perhaps explains the scariest part of online shopping. 

Neuromarketing (consumer neuroscience) specialists say that we generally decide on the purchase in a split second without rational thought. The moment we check out our cart there is a rush of affirmative emotion, which is quickly followed by guilty, low feelings. The high is a short and fleeting and like any addiction we are left wanting to experience that high again.

Researchers emphasise it is the shopping experience rather than the product itself that is addictive.

It is the ‘Thrill of the Hunt’, where even entering an online store behaves as a catalyst for dopamine production. Just as it is hard to break up with an eating disorder or walk away from a gambling or alcohol habit, it is the activity of shopping -from opening one’s laptop to measuring your foot in inches- that is hard to resist. What all these harmful habits have in common are that they are associated with positive feelings.

It doesn’t make it easy when we are sent into lockdown after lockdown and are more or less forced to navigate the world online.

On top of this we’re up against targeted advertising based off complex algorithms, free-shipping, free-returns, 10% off your first offer if you sign up, and what was that? Quick! – END OF FINANCIAL YEAR SALE! Several people in my life have expressed to me they too feel truncated by persuasive colourful advertising every direction they turn.

How to gain control of an online shopping addiction?

So, if you also find yourself at the post office a little too often, or feel you are spending too much time browsing, know you are not alone and there are strategies you can put in place to regain control:

Identify what is triggering the behaviour. Are you curing boredom, avoiding a dreaded task, soothing anxiety, relieving stress? Have you had a couple of wines? Have you been with a certain person? Or had trouble sleeping? By locating the circumstances, you are able to understand what emotions you might be trying to mask with the shopping.

Consider the other areas of your life that these emotions relate to. Go to the root of the issue i.e., how might addressing any difficulties related to work stress, relationship difficulties or low self-esteem negate the urge to shop in the first place.

Delete shopping applications, turn off targeted advertising and unsubscribe to emails. Nothing is more liberating than unsubscribing from all those newsletters. It declutters the mind. If Instagram is a trigger, then delete or reduce your time on it.

Weigh up the pros and the cons of the purchase. Sit with it longer than a second. Let the dopamine high of finding the item settle. Sleep on it. If the urge is still there, then phone a friend and if they support it, well then hey, maybe treat yourself, so long as you feel confident you are spending for the right reasons.

Commit to no shopping at all. Cold Turkey style. Set a period of time and even tell a loved one to hold you accountable. Pay attention to the challenge of it and the feelings and emotions this cold turkey period generates.

Reconnect with your values. While material objects can be beautiful, it might help to remind yourself that they are, at the end of the day, just materials. Think about the qualities you value in your loved ones and how you want to be thought of by others. Such thinking pulls us out of the superficial landscape of consumption and returns us to what really matters.

How Peaceful Mind Psychology can help with shopping addiction?

We have a number of Melbourne-based psychologist’s who take an interest in addiction and compulsive spending. Our psychologist’s support our client’s to understand their vulnerabilities and triggers that lead to unhelpful spending as well as teach strategies & plan for preventing problem shopping. Contact us today if you would like to be matched to a psychologist who takes an interest in problem spending or addiction.