How Online Shopping Wrecks My Stability

I wrote an article several months ago about stopping hypomania by recognizing my thoughts and actions, one of which was excessive online shopping. It’s one of my biggest weaknesses, and probably the hardest one for me to keep in check. It’s a constant battle. I’m constantly bombarded with online ads, emails (no matter how many I unsubscribe to), and coupons luring me to “Buy! Buy! Buy!”

Online shopping can be dangerous for someone with bipolar disorder like myself. Why? Because by nature, my illness causes me to constantly seek stimulation and emotional highs. Because I have bipolar disorder, my brain is more vulnerable to dopamine rushes than people who don’t live with this illness. I’m lucky in a way, lots of people who live with bipolar disorder also struggle with drug, gambling or alcohol addiction as a means to achieving a highly sought after high. I don’t have any of these addictions, but I really feel empathy for those who do. I get it. I chase highs too, but mine are mostly achieved by purchasing stuff.

The term “retail therapy” may sound funny, but it’s no laughing matter. I’ve used online shopping to assuage boredom, celebrate a success, or pacify myself following a disappointment. But consuming isn’t therapy. It’s the opposite.

One of the reasons websites like Amazon, Zappos, ASOS and others can be so addictive is because they offer almost instant gratification. Within minutes of logging on, I can pick something out, pay for it and place an order. It happens so fast I don’t have time to reflect on what I’m doing or how much I’m spending. And shipping is often free and fast, so I can buy something and get it within a few days. I don’t have to look at how much I paid until much later, when I get my credit card bill. That’s dangerous. I believe it encourages shopping addiction, even in the most stable person.

The culture of online shopping has created an up and down cycle that’s done serious damage to my bank account and my stability. First, there’s the high that comes with buying the item. Then I obsessively track its journey to me. Sometimes, there’s the agitation that accompanies dealing with shipping companies. They may deliver my order late or—god forbid—lose my package. And then there’s the high of getting what I ordered, tearing open packages like I’m seven and it’s Christmas morning. And once I get my prize and the initial rush has worn off, there’s the inevitable disappointment that comes with buyer’s remorse. I regret my actions and often realize I don’t need or even want what I bought. So, I return the item, track its trip back obsessively, and I get another high once my refund is issued.

I think companies make returns easy because they know how many people buy things impulsively and regret their purchases. And because it’s simple (and often free) to send something back, I’m more willing to engage in impulse shopping. It feels less permanent when I know I can just return the food dehydrator I never planned on using. This mindset encourages me to pay less attention to what the repercussions of my actions are.

This whole emotional roller coaster isn’t good for anyone, and it’s dangerous for those of us with bipolar disorder. It destabilizes me even when I’m in remission. Just when I seem to be doing well, I realize I need a new pair of shoes or a winter coat, and the cycle begins again. I can only speak for myself, but I feel like it’s made my recovery more difficult. I’d argue that it’s made my bipolar worse by triggering and fueling manic symptoms.

In the past, when I felt the urge to spend money, I’d have to drive to a store, park, walk around to find stuff, hear the music piped from the in-store speaker system, and generally be immersed in the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. But although everything from the shop’s lighting to the store’s scent is meant to subliminally drive me to consume, it’s still an in-person experience. Because of that, it forces me to be more mindful of my surroundings and therefore, take stock in what I’m doing and how much I’m shelling out. The store atmosphere and experience of on-site browsing actually forces me to be somewhat mindful of my actions by existing in the moment. E-commerce takes all that away. I can buy things online anywhere and on any device. I can shop while I’m waiting in line at a restaurant, watching TV, or at work. It isn’t just quick and easy, it’s also really easy to mindlessly shop.

I’m learning to be more mindful in my life. I try to eat consciously by chewing slowly to avoid overstuffing myself. I meditate and practice yoga. I’ve learned how beneficial living mindfully can be to both my physical and mental health. But I had no idea until recently that being mindful while shopping is important, too. By being in the moment and asking myself “Will I really wear this?” or “Do I actually need this?” I’m learning to curb my unhealthy habit.

I participate in focus groups to make extra money between freelance jobs. In 2019, I did a study on online shopping. I had to record my feelings and behaviors while shopping online. I took stock of my every thought in each step of the process, from finding an item to buying it and tracking it, to receiving it and unboxing the package. I chose a sweatshirt. I answered questions like what I thought I’d achieve by buying this sweatshirt. I could choose from emotions like happiness, satisfaction, contentment, excitement, elation and more. I had to share each instance of tracking the sweatshirt’s route to me. The study moderators even said not to worry about how many times I checked the tracking. They wanted me to record every moment in which I tracked my order status. I thought I was the only one who frantically refreshed the UPS website hoping for a status update. I guess I’m not. And the people who did the study must know this isn’t just happening to people who struggle with bipolar disorder. Impulse buying may be great for a company’s bottom line, but it’s toxic to the general public.

I think the study was conducted by a retail giant. They were probably looking for ways to make people shop more and spend more. Ironically, doing this focus group woke me up to my shopping problem and how tied it was to my emotions, my mental state and my bipolar disorder. Answering questions about what I was thinking when browsing, paying and unpacking made me aware of my unhealthy shopping habits. And once the study was done, I vowed to stop the cycle and break the hold retail “therapy” has over me.

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