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Shopping has never been easier. In a matter of moments, you can log onto your favorite online store, select a few items, and hit the checkout button. In a day or so, your package will arrive at your door.

It’s no wonder that the e-commerce industry is booming, with more and more people shopping online. In the past year, many people have stayed home due to COVID-19 and gained a lot more time with their screens.

For people who are prone to impulse buys, the combination of lockdown and the increasing availability of online retail can be a dangerous one.

It’s easy to see why online shopping might have boomed during quarantine. Many stores shut their doors, and health guidelines dictate that shoppers avoid unnecessary excursions.

As a result, online shopping has become a natural alternative to going to the mall.

Online shopping was already on the rise before the pandemic. According to a 2018 poll sponsored by National Public Radio, almost 7 in 10 Americans shopped online at least once.

Unsurprisingly, these numbers have grown dramatically alongside the lockdowns in the United States. According to an eMarketer report, e-commerce sales reached over $843 billion in 2021.

The same report notes that online retail sales jumped 32.4 percent from 2019 to 2020, and that e-commerce sales will reach 19.2 percent of all U.S. retail spending by 2024.

In other words, Americans are flocking to online shops.

The bottom line

Online retail sales jumped 32.4 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Online shopping may have spiked for many, but, in some cases, these habits could be unhealthy.

To understand the connection between lockdown and online shopping, we spoke with Drew Pate, the chief of psychiatry at LifeBridge Health, and Chloe Greenbaum, the founder and director of Premier Psychology Group.

“Compulsive buying [is] significantly associated with several mental health challenges, including substance use, depression, and anxiety. Manic episodes in bipolar disorders are also associated with impulsive behaviors and excessive spending,” Greenbaum says.

Pate adds that other emotional triggers can contribute to a shopping addiction or compulsion.

“For some people, it’s loneliness. For some people, it’s happiness — they feel good, so they want to reward themselves,” he says.

It’s not hard to draw a link between the past year and mental health challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the stress of the pandemic has increased rates of anxiety, depression, and substance use.

Greenbaum notes that another reason many people may be shopping compulsively this year is that it’s just so easy.

“It’s very easy to justify online shopping when people aren’t spending money on non-essential things, like drinks, restaurants, and travel,” she says. “People are also desperate for novelty and excitement during a time that can feel so repetitive and confining.”

Pate adds that the arrival of a package at the door can feel exciting.

“You may not be able to see your friends or your significant others for long periods of time,” he says. “So seeing, ‘Oh, we got a package’ — even if it’s just toilet paper — makes you feel good.”

Shopping can provide a boost, so many have turned to their favorite online retailers in a bleak time.

“The neurotransmitter dopamine surges when we anticipate a reward,” Greenbaum says. “In the case of online shopping, dopamine spikes when we see a cue, such as an ad, when we’re browsing, and when we consider purchasing something new.”

It’s no wonder online shopping is so tempting. There’s a little dopamine boost at nearly every stage of the buying process.

The bottom line

The neurotransmitter dopamine spikes when shoppers see an ad, browse for purchases, or consider hitting the checkout button.

If you’ve been spending a little more than usual this year, you aren’t alone. Greenbaum and Pate agree it’s only natural that many have found online shopping a little more tempting and rewarding during the pandemic.

On the other hand, when should you start to worry? Is there a clear-cut difference between a shopping habit and a shopping compulsion or addiction?

Greenbaum says there’s still some debate in the medical community about how to diagnose compulsive shopping.

“While compulsive shopping can cause a number of problems, it’s not recognized as a specific disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” she says. “There’s debate about whether it should be considered an impulse control disorder, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a behavioral addiction.”

Shopping compulsions tend to get less discussion in the medical community. And many people don’t realize that a shopping habit might actually be the sign of an underlying problem.

The lack of knowledge about shopping compulsions means they may go unnoticed.

“Shopping addictions are often trivialized, as shown by terms like ‘shopaholic’ and ‘retail therapy’ being commonly used in jest,” Greenbaum says.

Plus, it can be hard to spot online shopping habits, because they don’t usually cause physical harm. Still, compulsive online shopping can cause financial, emotional, and relationship problems if it goes unchecked.

The bottom line

Compulsive online shopping can lead to financial, emotional, and relationship problems.

One of the main signs that your shopping habit has developed into an addiction is that you can’t stop doing it.

Pate explains that an addiction is usually characterized as something that requires external help or support.

He suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • Have I tried to cut back on my shopping and been unable to do so?
  • Do I feel bad or guilty about my shopping habits?

“If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then it may reveal that there’s a problem,” he says.

Compulsive shopping warning signs:

  • You keep shopping online, even if it’s creating problems in your personal or financial life.
  • You rely on online shopping as a means of dealing with negative emotions.
  • You feel high or euphoric when you shop online.
  • You think about online shopping consistently throughout the day.
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As with any addiction, it can be tough to break the patterns of behavior.

“It’s important to get to the root cause of the addiction, which varies across individuals,” Greenbaum says.

The root cause might be anything from feelings of anxiety and stress to feelings of being unfulfilled at work or in your personal relationships.

Without professional help, it can be hard to find the origin of your compulsive shopping. However, there are a few practical steps you can take to start to break the habit.

  1. Find another way to get your dopamine offline. Find a constructive activity that gets you excited. Pour your energy into that instead of shopping.
  2. Develop a checklist when shopping. Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Do I already have something similar? Why am I making this purchase?
  3. Unsubscribe from online retailer newsletters. Email marketing is designed to hit people at the exact moment when they’re most tempted to shop. Remove triggers by blocking emails and ads.
  4. Change your relationship with your electronics. Pate suggests that simply being on a phone or computer can be the first trigger to online shopping. “Take a step back from electronics usage,” he says.
  5. Keep track of your spending. Greenbaum explains that keeping a meticulous record of your spending can help to shake a shopping habit.
  6. Set clear limits. Instead of going cold turkey, set a budget for your online spending. This way, you can begin to separate what you want from what you need.
  7. Wait a few days before every purchase. Give yourself 3 days to a week before hitting that checkout button. Keeping items in your online shopping cart gives you time to decide whether the purchase is a compulsive one or a necessary one.

In some cases, an online shopping habit may require additional support from family, loved ones, or mental health professionals.

There’s no shame in reaching out for help if your shopping gets out of hand.

Support for a shopping addiction

Shopaholics Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous offer money management classes and 12-step recovery programs for individuals who need help with a shopping addiction.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers tips to relieve debt and fix credit for those who are working on repairing their finances.

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After a year of isolation and few dopamine rewards, many of us may find ourselves turning to the ephemeral thrill of online shopping.

Experts note that browsing, checking out, and receiving packages can trigger real emotional responses in the brain.

If you’ve become reliant on online shopping for emotional support, these tips can help you begin to break the habit.

Meg Walters is a writer and actor from London. She is interested in exploring topics such as fitness, meditation, and healthy lifestyles in her writing. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, yoga, and the occasional glass of wine.