Shopping: The ultimate antidote to finals stress

By Cecile Truong / Columnist

We’re nearing finals week and the end of the school year, which means all students’ and professors’ stress levels are about to crest. To combat stress, some people work out at the Petersen Events Center, pig out at Market Central or sit in the massage chairs in the William Pitt Union. Personally, I find nothing more stress-relieving than going on a shopping spree. 

While excessive shopping may do some damage to your bank account and encourage hoarding behavior, occasional retail therapy — shopping in order to relieve stress — can actually be good for you. And this isn’t just my inner shopaholic talking.

First of all, shopping is associated with a sense of achievement. Think about the time you gained a couple of pounds after your freshman year and none of your jeans fit anymore. The too-tight denim forced you to go to the mall to find just one new pair to hold you off until shorts season, but instead, you found that your favorite store was having a huge sale on jeans. You end up feeling elated about not having to spend much money on four pairs of great-fitting jeans.

A U.K. study conducted at Brunel University London correlated the effect of shopping on the left prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is linked to pleasure and positive thinking. The heightened emotions of happiness release endorphins, known as the “feel good” chemicals in your brain. The secretion of endorphins can also lead to modulation of appetite, enhanced immune response, less pain and fewer negative effects of stress.

Shopping is also correlated with other neurological markers of pleasure. In 2012, a psychologist named Heidi Hartston from Oakland, Calif., used neuroimaging research to find that there are spikes in levels of reward-circuit dopamine activity related to shopping. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it plays an essential role in behavior, cognition, mood, attention, working memory, learning and much more. After you bought those new pairs of jeans, your brain secreted dopamine to reward you for accomplishing your mission of buying new jeans, increasing your feelings of happiness and maybe even helping you forget that you gained the “freshman 15.”

Apply that to studying. Because your dopamine levels are already up and your mind is buzzing, you’re set to take on that biochemistry study guide.

Yet, popular culture continues to frown upon shopping for pleasure. Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco who studies consumer trends and behaviors, told USA Today that customers shun retail therapy despite its benefits.

I think it’s unpopular these days to say you shop for pleasure because we’re supposed to be in some stoic state in this post-recession economy,” Yarrow said. “I think shopping serves as a healthy purpose for a lot of people. If it works for you, you should not feel guilty. Do it, enjoy it and don’t overdo it.

Buying your favorite clothes can also lead to long-term benefits. Shopping may help women maintain their mental acuity in old age, Guy McKhann, M.D., a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University and  co-author of “Keep Your Brain Young,” said

“People who are doing really well as they get older tend to be mentally engaged, physically active and socially involved,” he said to Women’s Health Magazine. “And women are all of those things when they shop.” 

When you’re shopping, you’re physically active: walking through multiple stores to find exactly what you’re looking for, walking up and down stairs to get from floor to floor and carrying your items around while browsing. You’re probably getting a good amount of exercise, which is linked to lower risks of cardiovascular disease and other related health issues.

You’re mentally engaged when you calculate how much money you’ll spend or how much a 40 percent discount coupon takes off of a $30 top, or identifying the pros and cons of each item. 

You’re exercising your social skills if you meet up with friends to shop and talk about your day, or if you talk to one of the employees in the store. Shopping can be a great bonding experience, and friends can help you feel less stressed, too. 

It’s important to keep your mental processes active as you age. If you don’t keep using your brain, important connections between your neurons could be lost, leading to dementia or other memory issues in the future.

Finally, the most shocking benefit of shopping is that it actually seems to help people live longer, as suggested by research published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2011. 

The study focused on 1,850 elderly (ages 65 and older) Taiwanese people. Participants were asked how often they went shopping, and researchers got responses that ranged from “never” to “every day.” The researchers then tracked how long each participant lived by linking individuals to national death registration data. The data showed that those who shopped daily were 27 percent less likely to die in the next nine years. 

Frequent shopping among the elderly is not always about buying things. Rather, it’s more about seeking companionship or exercising. While some people say physical activity is the best way to be healthy, engaging in social and economic activities later in life also plays a large role in becoming and remaining healthy. 

Shopping captures several dimensions of personal well-being and health as well as contributing to the community’s cohesiveness and economy, and it can confer increased longevity. 

So next time you’re stressed about failing your finals, why not take the next Port Authority bus down to South Side with your friends? You might find the perfect new pair of boots while also improving your mood and mental acuity, getting some exercise and even lengthening your life span. As long as you’re not overdoing it, head to the mall or outlets and enjoy your lower stress levels.

Cecile Truong primarily writes about college and social issues for The Pitt News.

Write to Cecile at [email protected].