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My Favorite Anti-Anxiety Treatment Is Online Shopping

Photo-Illustration: Photos: Getty Images

Last year, I had a real problem with pajamas. For a moment I decided to become a nightgown person, so I bought three little cotton ones from Target. Then summer ended, and I became reinvested in matching preppy poplin sets like those on rotation at J.Crew. One of the sets I bought had narrow, emerald green stripes (my favorite color) and a lemon embroidered onto the shorts. I remember thinking: These were made for me.

Then I decided I needed a robe, and more specifically, a silk kimono. Sure, now I mostly slouched around my apartment in the same corporate-gifted sweatshirt and sweatpants every day, but with a kimono, I would be motivated toward elegance. In the mornings I’d throw on my kimono over my (matching) pajamas, make coffee, and prepare for my day, wafting around the apartment. This orderliness would no doubt motivate me to get actually dressed, in a real outfit: one befitting of the sort of effortlessly stylish woman who owns a kimono.

I selected an emerald green robe online, and felt the familiar rush of joy and hope when I pressed order. When the package came in the mail, I got high all over again. I opened the delicate paper wrapping and threw on my kimono, just as I planned. Then I hung it on the back of my bedroom door, where it has been ever since.

Much to my present-day dismay, Pajama-Gate 2017 made me believe it was a good idea for me to give up buying new clothes for all of 2018. My inspiration was two-fold: One, I’d read a very good essay by the novelist Ann Patchett, in which she describes her own successful and seemingly revelatory year of no shopping; and two, I knew that clothing shopping was becoming an anxiety crutch, and I could no longer afford it. When I had a full-time office job, it was easier to justify my online shopping — I had the disposable income for it, and I could at least make the argument that I “needed” new clothes to wear to work. But I’ve been a freelancer who works from home for more than a year now, and while I am overall much happier, I can no longer afford to spend the same kind of money on clothing. Especially since I have nowhere to wear it.

I’m a few months into my year without (new) clothes, and while it’s been good for my bank account, I’ve noticed a distinct hole where my favorite nighttime stress habit used to be. But why did this soothe my worries in the first place? And is there anything cheaper I can do to replace it during my year-of-no-clothes? To learn more about the link between anxiety and online shopping, I spoke to Lindsey Bergman, a researcher and clinician specializing in OCD at UCLA. Like most people have done when I tell them about my clothes shopping abstinence, Bergman sounds both impressed and sorry for me.

Bergman tells me that the literature on the links between mental health and online shopping is relatively sparse; much more has been done on traditional brick-and-mortar shopping, but online shopping as we know it is a newer experience. And while some academics argue that in-person and online shopping are effectively the same, Bergman disagrees (as do I) — though both, when done in excess, are associated with anxiety and depression. “Compulsive shopping is definitely associated with negative mood states and people being depressed and anxious,” she says. “It feels like it [relieves those symptoms], but in the long term, it doesn’t. When you’re buying online, you’re not getting that same immediate relief, so even if it’s kind of impulsive, you’re delaying gratification in a way, because you’re not getting it right away the way you do in the store.”

I would argue that online shopping actually creates two points of gratification over brick-and-mortar stores’ one: There is the high you get after the simple act of spending money, and the high you get days later, when what you ordered finally arrives. (This is the only good explanation for how I’ve managed to acquire so many nearly identical shapeless black dresses.) Bergman says my theory makes sense. Online shopping gives anxious-depressive types like me a “sustained feeling of excitement and having something to look forward to,” she says. “I think we live life from thing to thing to thing instead of all the moments in between, and with online shopping, you’re creating that for yourself.” In other words, the delay itself is practically the whole point.

Bergman tells me there have been a number of attempts to get compulsive shopping classified as a disorder distinct from other compulsive behaviors, like gambling or sex addiction. While almost all acknowledged compulsive disorders (like gambling and sex addiction) are suffered predominantly by men, shopping addiction, perhaps unsurprisingly, skews female. Specialized treatment is hard to come by, adds Bergman, and is generally modeled off those used in other compulsive behaviors. But interest in the field is growing. Last year, a group of researchers developed an online addiction shopping scale, adapted from previous tools used to measure traditional shopping addiction.

In my case, my clothing shopping had a definite element of compulsivity, but never reached addiction territory. (I have never, for instance, “quarreled with my parents” or friends over my online shopping, nor do I feel that “Life without online shopping for some time would be boring and joyless for me,” as another item on this scale suggests.) While I may have acquired too many black button-downs, I was always realistic about the stores I could afford and those I could not. While it’s good for my savings (and the environment) to consume less, it’s unclear to me, so far, whether my shopping ban has done anything for my mental health. Studies show that retail therapy sort of works: research shows that shopping really does reduce sadness — at least for a little while.

Still, there are smarter ways for anxious-depressive people to spend their extra cash. “Buying experiences is a better way to spend your money,” says Bergman. If you’re prone to reclusivity, like many anxious people are, buying tickets to a play or sporting event might be a healthier substitute than ordering another $12 pair of sweatpants off Amazon. But you know this, and I know this, and yet we keep shopping.

The premise that a particular product will Change Your Life is pretty much the entire foundation of our economy, and it’s a hard one to reject. After a little more than two months without spending on clothes, I find that I’m often just transferring that fantasy from a blazer to, say, the newest Glossier product. I’ve still bought things I don’t need and probably won’t use much. But I have noticed that if I simply wait out the fantasy that this mascara or this fancy blender or this set of fine-point pens will change my life, it will go away. There will always, always be something newer and shinier to take its place, and very few of these products will contribute to making you the person of your dreams.

While I’d love to be the sort of ascetic minimalist who buys only what I need — the kind who travels with only an ergonomic backpack, the kind whose makeup bag has six items or fewer and certainly nothing crusty or ancient — that’s probably unrealistic for me: as much a fantasy as the chic silk robe-wearer. All I really want from my no-shopping year is to become a little less impulsive, and to find a less expensive outlet for my restless anxiety. I thought I might get really into drawing, so last week I ordered a pack three new black pens online. I’ve only drawn once so far, but I’m going to do it again. I mean it.

My Favorite Anti-Anxiety Treatment Is Online Shopping