Shopping can bring on feelings of overwhelm and panic attacks. Here’s what’s behind those anxiety symptoms and how to cope.

Going shopping can be a minefield of anxious thoughts. Will I find what I need? How long will I need to wait in this line? Did I max out that credit card? Why is the parking lot so busy?

All these factors and more can contribute to shopping anxiety. While “shopping anxiety” is not a formal diagnosis, many folks experience real anxiety when they visit a store. It can also be linked with anxiety disorders. The stress and worry might result in panic or avoidance of shopping altogether.

However, help is available. You can take steps to make shopping for anything — from groceries to clothing — less anxiety-ridden.

Shopping and anxiety go hand in hand for many people. Shopping can trigger:

If you think about the experience of shopping, it’s no wonder it causes anxiety. Going shopping is full of unpredictability, sensory overload, and interactions with strangers.

For example, when you go to the grocery store there is uncertainty over parking, crowds, whether or not the store will have what you need, food choices, spending money, and how long you’ll have to wait in a checkout line. Add in narrow aisles and a barrage of smells and bright marketing, and the experience can be overwhelming.

Shopping can also bring up financial and body insecurities. Fearing embarrassment over having to put something back because you can’t afford the total bill can trigger anxiety. People in larger bodies may perceive being judged for their food or clothing choices, which can trigger anxious thoughts.

None of these experiences are particularly pleasant, no matter someone’s mental state. But shopping can be especially challenging for people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or OCD.

What is compulsive shopping?

On the other hand, some folks use shopping as a way to cope with anxiety, depression, or a bad mood. This is known as compulsive shopping, or compulsive buying behavior (CBB). You may have also heard it called shopping addiction or retail therapy.

No matter what you call it, 2016 research classifies CBB as a mental health condition characterized by the persistent, excessive, impulsive, and uncontrollable purchase of products despite severe psychological, social, occupational, or financial consequences.

CBB may be related to OCD, though it may share ties with other disorders such as addictive behavior disorders, substance abuse disorders, or eating disorders. People who have an anxiety disorder may try to self-soothe by shopping.

While shopping may provide boosted self-image or stress relief in the short term, untreated CBB can lead to:

  • guilt or shame
  • buyer’s remorse
  • financial or legal issues
  • problems in relationships

Interestingly, consumers who have a higher stress reaction to environmental cues while shopping are also more likely to impulse buy, according to a 2000 study.

Shopping anxiety can be caused by various underlying mental health conditions, most notably GAD and OCD.

Shopping anxiety and OCD

People with OCD have obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts or beliefs that can cause anxiety. Sometimes, an obsession is tied to a belief that if they don’t do something, the person with OCD will manifest a bad event in the future. Compulsions are behaviors that folks with OCD engage in to alleviate an obsessive thought.

For people with OCD, a negative event or mood that causes distress may heighten the urge to shop. This can lead to the compulsion of buying in order to alleviate distress.

Shopping anxiety and anxiety disorders

Shopping anxiety may also relate to GAD or other types of anxiety disorders, like social anxiety or agoraphobia. If you feel anxious, worried, or stressed about shopping, it could indicate your shopping anxiety may be related to an underlying anxiety disorder.

Some common signs of anxiety disorders include:

  • being unable to control your worry
  • shopping makes you feel wound up or on edge
  • physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, or other unexplained pains
  • feeling irritable

Some anxiety or worry related to shopping is normal. Other factors may also explain it, such as a low bank account or a dislike of crowds. But if you experience anxiety that partially or fully shuts you down when you need to go shopping, an underlying anxiety disorder may be causing distress.

It’s important to first try to figure out what condition or past experiences are driving your shopping anxiety. This may help you with getting the right treatment.

You don’t have to do this alone. Working with a therapist can help you get to the root of your shopping anxiety and learn healthy emotional coping strategies.

Folks with underlying anxiety disorders may benefit from medication or therapy, including:

Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.

While you’re searching for a therapist or waiting for treatment to begin, consider the following tips for managing shopping anxiety:

  • Plan your trips and go prepared with a list.
  • Set and stick to a budget. Add items up on your phone’s calculator if you’re worried about not having enough money.
  • Shop at “off times” to avoid crowds.
  • Avoid shopping when your energy is already depleted.
  • Order groceries online for delivery.
  • Shop with a friend or family member. They may either help keep your purchases in check or provide support when you feel anxious.

The above tips are best used as short-term solutions as they may reinforce some fear-based behaviors and do not address the underlying factors causing the anxiety. It’s best to work with a therapist to find supportive ways to relieve anxiety in the long term.

Shopping anxiety can take two forms. You may find yourself compulsively buying to feel some relief or other satisfaction, or you may find yourself feeling worried and stressed whenever you go shopping.

Shopping anxiety is treatable regardless of the underlying cause. A therapist can help tailor and recommend treatment based on what you need.