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Rethinking the Shopper's High: New Ways to Get the Rush Without Laying Out the Cash

The serotonin surge from shopping (think runner's high spiked with chic Milly dresses and swank Boss suits) can be attained from trying and not buying.

You just forked over $150 on a helpful shrink session and have locked in your new mantra for the week: Be a wall of strength and take time before reacting. En route to your car, it becomes time for a little retail therapy. You pass the window of that favorite boutique and are seduced by that ubiquitous, flashing, four-letter recession sign: SALE!

An hour later, you have modeled a few dozen garments in the mirror and feel happier, fulfilled. You got your fix, so get dressed, leave the tagged goods behind in the fitting room, and run like Forrest Gump. Don't turn back. Chant that mantra. "I am a wall of strength."

The serotonin release from the sport of shopping (think runner's high spiked with chic Milly dresses and swank Boss suits) can be attained from trying and not buying. I know; I'm an addict who has been successfully practicing restraint for months now, spurred on by a schizophrenic personal portfolio and a renewed commitment to green frugality.

That's not to say I don't empathize with sales clerks who work long boring hours to earn a living, many dependent on a sales commission to pay the rent. I'm also not advocating total abstinence at a time when small businesses are folding. It's a matter of recognizing the difference between titillating the senses with exciting merchandise visuals and the act of purchasing stuff you don't need for a momentary boost.

"For a lot of people like drug addicts, there is a release from just thinking about getting high or seeing an image and you don't have to complete the action," says Terrence Shulman, a social worker and recovered shoplifter. He runs a Shopaholics Anonymous program in Detroit, similar to the one parodied in the film about the fictional Rebecca Bloomwood, and finds it's not just the money but the time and energy spent on shopping that interferes with patients' lives and brings them to him for treatment.

"They are often unconsciously trying to get a high or to simply feel emotionally settled again so they can go on with their day, the same way an alcoholic needs that one stiff drink," Shulman says. "They may think they are searching for clothes, but are really looking for love, meaning, spirituality or acceptance. A relationship or job may not be fulfilling and they can't deal with the pain directly, so they detract themselves with a little game called shopping."

If you ask yourself, "Do I really need that top?" the answer for most recreational shoppers will inevitably be no. I have dozens of tops, including some I never wear. Meantime, as our income dwindles and investments take a dive, the cycle of overspending becomes the rule rather than the exception.

This was the subject of a 2009 UK study showing that shopping is serving as a way of regulating intense emotions brought on by hard times. Ironically, it adds up to more credit card debt and feelings of guilt.

"Many people are bulimic shoppers who buy and return, buy and return, because they feel remorse for their actions, the same way those with eating disorders eat and throw up," Shulman says. "People are more stressed during a recession and they go the same hole or strategy that has gotten them into trouble, or become compulsive bargain hunters because there are too many deals to resist. If you are in debt, you are not saving money if you are spending money."

WebMD tells us a serotonin deficiency is a large factor in depression. Natural antidepressants like shopping, binging on chocolate or getting some of that "Californication"-style sexual healing, are often sought by those who tend to experience dips in the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.

According to Psychology Today, compulsive shopping may be caused by an imbalance of the neurotransmitter serotonin. A study on "The Call of the Mall" shows that when Prozac was given to buyers, they stopped their overbuying sprees, only to resume them once they ended the drug treatment. Adding that this compulsion is less of a joy than an addiction, the study offers that boosting self-esteem is a primary incentive for shoppers, who return home with "clothing, shoes, makeup and jewelry -- all items that enhance appearance."

It could be some boosts last longer than others, such as spending an hour trying on stuff rather than rushing to buy, or indulging in a long, sensual lunch sans the sex. Hikers swear by the Rocky Mountain High endorphin release. If you are John Denver, it can last long enough to compose a song about it. All of these activities are healthier than overspending. The accumulation is not only anti-green, it contributes to clutter, which presents a whole other category of depression. That's a session for another day.

Of course, there are cases where trying on clothes actually leads to feelings of depression rather than a boost. That often occurs when women are unhappy about their bodies, from weight gain, cellulite or other factors.

According to a survey of 1,001 women by Fitness magazine, most women don't just look at an outfit, but critique their body flaws, as well. Eighty-eight percent said time in the fitting room made them re-evaluate their curves, or lack thereof, and nearly half would trim their waists, while 23 percent would change their hips and thighs; 10 percent the rear: 10 percent the chest; 4 percent the arms.

Hey, it looked so good on the mannequin at Nordstrom or on Heidi Klum! What's wrong with me?

Meantime, 40 percent surveyed started working out after one of those shopping trips, and the study author found shopping can be "a happy reality check when you've been working out really hard and getting in shape, and suddenly you realize that you can wear that pair of trendy jeans."

This reality check is clearly what leads many women to the fitting rooms in the first place, sort of a test drive to see what fits after all of that time on the elliptical and logging their calories. Can you tap the same discipline and control over shopping that helped you to eat healthier?

Shulman advises making a list according to your budget before going shopping. As food addicts will tell you, failing to plan is planning to fail. Don't enter a store impulsively seeking that lift. Maybe you can get it from limiting yourself to window shopping to avoid that remorse. And take a friend with you for support, a sort of shopping sponsor, rather than partner in crime (you know what I'm saying). A true friend will remind you to pass on excessive temptations.

My secret: Make sure it's someone who is considerably more frugal and conservative than you are. They're the ones who have it down. They're the ones who aren't in debt.

Luanne Bradley is senior editor at EcoSalon, a design writer and interior design consultant. Luanne writes for all sections of EcoSalon and her column Life in the Green Lane, about the humorous adventures of a family going green in the city, can be read weekly.
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