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The question: When is retail therapy unhealthy?

The answer: "Retail therapy" is a tongue-in-cheek term we tend to use (especially us women) to refer to shopping behaviour that has the primary aim of improving our emotional state. Getting something new that we like can naturally make us feel good – particularly when it is something that may contribute to enhancing our self-esteem or confidence, such as clothes, shoes or makeup. The natural little high that comes along with this is very normal and for the majority of people will not become problematic.

But some people may find that they have an urge to shop when they are sad, depressed, anxious or even angry. Although this can lead to a temporary lift in mood, often our decision-making is poor when we are experiencing negative emotions and we may make choices we later regret.

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There are three key questions to ask yourself to determine whether your shopping behaviour is unhealthy:

1. Do you get the urge to shop particularly when you are experiencing negative emotions?

2. Do you find it difficult to resist the urge to shop during these times?

3. Is your behaviour resulting in negative results effects (e.g., are you getting yourself into financial debt; do you feel guilty afterward; is it creating conflict with your partner)?

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you are likely engaging in shopping behaviour that is unhealthy. There are a few things that you can do to work on this.

First, articulate the negative effects of your behaviour. Write them down and be specific. Put this list somewhere visible.

Second, identify which particular moods tend to increase the likelihood that you will engage in "retail therapy." Work to regulate these negative emotions. Seek treatment for underlying mood issues if these have been unaddressed. Try instead different activities that will intrinsically improve your mood, such as visiting with a friend or going for a walk.

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Third, Third, consider what environmental triggers urge you to shop (e.g., a fight with your partner, a bad day at work). Work on a solution to these situations because targeting the underlying cause will be more effective than focusing strictly on the shopping behaviour.

Fourth, put a price to your behaviour. What is this costing you on a monthly basis? And how is that interfering with other short- and long-term financial goals you have?

Finally, make a commitment to change your behaviour. Be specific about what you are going to do. And start immediately.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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