There’s nothing wrong with finding joy in purchases, but buying things to create joy could be a sign of a mental health condition.

Getting something new can be fun and exciting. Even if you’re shopping for home necessities, the experience of buying something nice can make you feel accomplished.

In fact, research from 2014 points out that making purchases helps alleviate sadness and gives a sense of control.

Shopping as a recreational activity or because you need an item is one thing. Shopping because you depend on the mood boost could be something else.

Shopping is often a pleasurable experience. It can generate the same feel-good endorphins in the brain as other rewarding behaviors, particularly dopamine.

The dopamine system in the brain is one of the primary factors underlying depression symptoms, according to 2021 research.

Too little dopamine may be associated with feelings of low motivation and anhedonia, which is an inability to feel pleasure.

According to Beth Gabriel, DNP, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner from Jacksonville, Florida, shopping may temporarily give your brain the dopamine it lacks when you’re living with depression.

“Depression is due to a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain,” Gabriel says. “When someone purchases an item, this is recognized by the brain as a reward and chemicals are released, specifically dopamine.”

But the initial rush of feeling good from a purchase is short-lived, Gabriel says. When it wears off, you may start to crave the mood boost from shopping again.

Depression shopping, or retail therapy, emerges as a way to improve your mood.

“This can be achieved not just by shopping but by other rewarding behaviors, like sex and drug use,” she notes. “If someone is feeling depressed, it is only natural that they will look for ways to boost their mood; shopping is one way to do this, if only for a brief moment.”

Is compulsive shopping a disorder?

Compulsive shopping, also known as oniomania, is defined as an unmanageable, persistent urge to buy things.

Compulsive shopping is not a formal diagnosis included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). But not all experts agree with not including it.

It has been argued that compulsive shopping shares features of addictive disorders, impulse control disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Despite not being listed in the DSM-5, compulsive buying behavior is recognized as a prevalent mental health condition that can cause impairment in important areas of life, according to 2016 research.

Because compulsive shopping usually occurs alongside other mental health disorders, the line between depression shopping and compulsive shopping is often blurred.

Signs you may be experiencing depression shopping can be very similar to the signs of compulsive shopping. But depression shopping is specific to the mood boost gained from rewarding activity.

Signs of depression shopping may include:

  • relentless thoughts about shopping or owning a particular item
  • a notable feeling of pleasure or excitement when making a purchase
  • extensive planning, preparing, or researching before a shopping event
  • feeling the urge to shop in response to negative situations or interactions
  • feelings of guilt or regret after a purchase
  • spending more money than you can afford
  • buying more than you need
  • taking on multiple store-specific credit lines to make purchases
  • shopping taking priority over other important parts of life
  • rarely using the things you buy
  • being unable to part with items you’ve purchased
  • hiding receipts and other evidence of your spending

You may not always be able to manage depression shopping, especially if it has turned into compulsive shopping.

Compulsive shopping is when your buying habits come from an unmanageable urge. If this is the case, you may find the guidance of a mental health professional helpful.

There are ways you can manage depression shopping:

Finding other enjoyable activities

Shopping boosts your mood because your brain recognizes it as a reward.

Janisha Mickens-Ingram, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Gardena, California, recommends reconnecting with other hobbies and passions you once enjoyed as a way to manage the urges of depression shopping.

Using the wish list

Melissa Kaekel, a licensed professional counselor from Fayetteville, North Carolina, says that part of the allure of online shopping is the process of browsing items and picking out things you like.

But you do not always have to go through with the purchase.

“Dopamine is released during the process of comparing items, looking at features, and imagining owning the item,” she says. “Filling up a cart or wish list gives the same pleasure without spending money.”

Making it difficult to spend

Another tactic Kaekel recommends is to make impulse buying difficult.

She suggests:

  • not carrying credit cards with you
  • only keeping a small amount of cash on hand
  • putting shop cards in a hard-to-reach-spot at home
  • deleting store card numbers from your devices
  • unsubscribing from coupon emails
  • deleting shopping apps from your devices

Keeping a list of budget-friendly self-care options

Mickens-Ingram advises identifying the budget-friendly things you can do to encourage self-care.

Self-care involves practices that promote well-being, such as exercise, meditation, and bibliotherapy. Self-care is a potentially effective way of coping with depression and anxiety, according to 2020 research.

Self-care doesn’t have to involve expensive spa visits or vacations to the beach. It can be budget-friendly and free, like taking a walk, meditating, or indulging in a hot bath at the end of the day.

Exchange retail therapy and shopping for a therapy that suits you

Depression shopping is often a symptom of depression. It’s not just a behavior you turn to when you’re feeling down.

Navigating depression often means finding a form of therapy that cultivates long-term helpful behavior patterns and coping strategies.

Here are some therapy options that may help with depression shopping:

  • Online: using the services of mental health professionals by way of telehealth, video calls, or other online formats
  • Virtual reality: meeting with a therapist using a virtual avatar that mimics human movements and interaction
  • Groups: giving and receiving support by meeting with a therapist who guides a peer group experiencing depression shopping behaviors
  • Online groups: guided online group sessions that encourage sharing and support among peers
  • Self-help groups: working with a self-help group to talk about coping strategies without the guidance of a therapist
  • Face-to-face: traditional talk therapy conducted in person with a mental health professional
  • Life coaching: partnering with a coach who helps you work toward specific life goals and build healthy habits

To your brain, shopping is often a rewarding experience. It’s an activity that can trigger mood-boosting endorphins. These endorphins can make depression feel less intense, but only for a short time.

Like many rewarding habits, depression shopping may evolve into more than just a self-help strategy.

If buying becomes unmanageable, you may also be experiencing a mental health condition known as compulsive buying.

While it may offer a momentary mood boost, shopping will not cure depression. Depression often requires the guidance of a mental health professional or targeted therapy options.

You may be able to manage the impulse to shop through strategies like a wish list, credit line restriction, and a rediscovery of other rewarding activities.

If you’re looking for a therapist but are unsure where to start, Psych Central’s resource on how to find mental health support can help.