mental health

Can't Stop Shopping? This Doctor Explains Why We Impulse Buy Now More Than Ever.

Resisting some of our favorite vices has become increasingly difficult in the difficult times.

If you’re like me, you probably buy stuff you don’t really need. But you might also have that one thing you can seemingly never resist adding to your cart – that designer purse, limited sneaker release, or hard-to-find collectible. For me it’s records. Why do I feel compelled to stack more vinyl? And does everyone else experience this?

Why is it so hard to stop shopping?

“You are drawn naturally to records, music, but for other people it could be high fashion or incredible sneakers,” says Dr. Stephanie Hartselle, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. “Those things light up those areas in your brain that cause that dopamine release and then you go and seek it out and you’re determined to purchase that object.”

In her own practice Dr, Hartselle has seen a huge uptick in patients seeking help with “behavior addictions.” These are addictions tied to seemingly ordinary behaviors like shopping, gambling, pornography, food, or social media. They can become problematic when they have a truly negative impact on your quality of life. She says the increased stress brought on by the pandemic, inflation, politics, and other stressors has worn down our ability to resist some of our favorite urges.

“In the context of the pandemic and all the stressors in the world, no matter where you lie politically, right now is an incredibly stressful time to be alive.” Hartselle explains. “In that background it is true that most of us are seeking some kind of joy, and joy is related to dopamine.”

This behavior isn’t new. But it exists within a different context now. “A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago people were doing the same things, we just have a lot more at our fingertips now, ” says Hartselle.

What steps can people take to stop buying stuff?

Whether our most sought-after feel-good behaviors were passed down to us or triggered by the latest grim news, there’s still hope. Dr. Hartselle walked me through a couple ways to resist that dopamine craving and some red flags to look out for if the addiction gets out of hand.

“We all do this in some way, so don’t overwhelm yourself with guilt…if these actions are bringing joy and adding depth to the life that is currently very stressful – wonderful,” she says. “If they’re starting to really drain your financial resources or you are engaging in them instead of family, friends, things like that, then we try to work on how we tolerate the stress of seeing that thing, wanting that thing, and then riding that wave of anxiety and walking away and training that muscle.”

She told me that when faced with temptation, trying to visualize a person or personal goal that you’ve prioritized will help you “pump the brakes” on the impulse in favor of a higher purpose. She added that it won’t be easy at first, but the same part of our brain that makes us want to compulsively act will eventually reward us with dopamine when we resist. This practice is healthier and more sustainable over time.

“The idea is: Don’t shut yourself off from all the things that are available in this modern day… We all practice with small things and eventually get to the point where you can scroll through social media and not be lured into buying things that are not planned in terms of your goals.”

She suggested starting conversations with those in your personal circle or family to plan out areas of your life that may be more important than a particular behavior addiction.

While we all may experience this fundamental behavior in various ways not everyone does so at levels that she says need professional treatment. If the behaviors are not putting you in financial trouble, not closing you off from family and friends, and instead providing depth to your quality of life, you’re operating in a safe zone. This means it doesn’t rise to a level of concern.

However, if the behaviors are prioritized over key aspects of your life, you want to stop but can’t, or they’re leading to negative emotional or financial troubles it may be time to seek help. This can vary from person to person. Our mental health operates on a spectrum. Each of us is unique, and addiction is not cut and dry.

Some of the first steps include recognition of a potential problem. These mental health resources are a great start to learn more about what to look for. Contacting a local mental health provider is another way to begin a potential recovery journey.

SAMHSA's National Helpline: Here you’ll find multiple resources for behavioral health as well as helplines and treatment services.

MentalHealth.gov: The U.S. government site dedicated to mental health. It provides education resources, guides to government health programs and assistance for mental health needs.

NAMI: The nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization with over 600 local affiliates and 49 state organizations who work in communities to raise awareness and provide support.