Skip to main content

The Eaton Centre on March 10.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

While isolated during the height of the pandemic, 28-year-old Bonny Clea would turn to online shopping as a way of comforting herself.

“Without access to socializing or spending time outside of the home, it became almost a necessity to purchase things online,” said Clea, who lives in Salt Spring Island, B.C. and is the founder of a trauma-informed wellness company.

“I would spend more on the products I purchased as a way to ensure I was spending for quality versus quantity. Home goods and clothes were the items I spent the most money on … These purchases were not always well thought out, simply because I was buying out of a state of self-soothing,” she said.

According to Chantel Chapman, a Richmond, B.C.-based financial educator and co-founder of The Trauma of Money, a financial literacy program, many people tend to unconsciously overspend or compulsively spend to soothe feelings of pain or discomfort.

The behaviour can be habit-forming.

That’s because spending can create a dopamine rush, also known as a pleasure surge. Dopamine itself is a neurotransmitter and our brains are consistently releasing a baseline of this molecule, but when there is an anticipation of a reward, like owning a new outfit for example, the brain creates a rush or hit of dopamine that temporarily can make you feel pleasure, Chapman said.

While dopamine can be helpful for motivation, it’s important to notice if you’re chasing a feeling of pleasure, she said, because it can result in a cycle of pleasure and pain.

“Every single time we have an increase in dopamine – that surge of pleasure – our brain’s natural reflex is to get into balance,” Chapman said.

“To do that, the brain will lean toward pain so this will feel like you are experiencing a low after the high. Imagine it’s like a teeter-totter.”

She explained that shopping can result in a hit of pleasure, but afterward we may experience a low. This is how people sometimes end up addicted to shopping because they’re in a cycle of seeking pleasure to avoid any feelings of pain, she said.

“As someone who likes to buy ethically, most of my feelings to rush to purchase something were to feel a sense of quality,” Clea explained. “I would feel a desire for the dopamine rush, which was encouraged by my idea of what those items could make me feel.

“The unboxing was especially synonymous with the feeling of a pleasure rush – to own something new, or to feel the tangible sensation of tape, cardboard, fabric, or colour.”

The excitement would fade quickly after she received the item, however.

“There were times where there were multiple purchases coming at once, and I would feel disconnected from the excitement I had previously felt clicking ‘purchase’ … It made me reflect on how often I went out to self-soothe any uncomfortable feelings,” Clea said.

To get off the “dopamine treadmill” when it comes to shopping, Chapman recommends first asking yourself, what is the “why” of the buy?

“If you’re noticing that you’re trying to stop an emotional cycle of pain, you’re bored, or you’re feeling inadequate, and the … behaviour is to give yourself an increase of pleasure, then that’s an indicator to stop,” Chapman said.

Referencing new research from Dr. Anna Lembke, Chapman also recommended pausing any dopamine-seeking behaviour for 30 days, which is the amount of time needed to reset your dopamine baseline. So, in the case of shopping, that would mean not making any unnecessary purchases for 30 days.

Lastly, Chapman suggests sitting with any feelings of pain and discomfort without trying to make it go away.

“If we notice we’re chasing pleasure, just sit with the low and don’t try to fix it with another hit of pleasure,” she said.

In Clea’s case, she found meditation and journaling helpful.

“In exploring who I am authentically, … I was able to spend money on things that would bring me joy,” she said.

“Whether that was spending a little more on a beautiful notebook and pen, biodynamic food, comfortable clothes, and skin care, there were things that did have an impact on my self-esteem and my joy … There is a certain amount of self-reflection and care that has to go into recognizing what your body is feeling and how to respond to it.”

Are you a young Canadian with money on your mind? To set yourself up for success and steer clear of costly mistakes, listen to our award-winning Stress Test podcast.