Did you experience emotional spending during the pandemic? A little over half of Californians did, according a March 2021 poll published by the American Addiction Centers.
Emotional spending is also known as compulsive buying disorder, according to Ijendu Korie. M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Santa Clarita.
During the pandemic, she’s seen an increase in emotional spending, an activity that she said is characterized by “excessive shopping and buying behavior that leads to distress or impairment.”
The outcome is important, Dr. Korie said. Before labeling something a disorder, it needs to lead to distress or impairment, she explained.
“I’ve seen it more in patients that have anxiety or anxiety-related disorders, addictive behavior and obsessive-compulsive disorder,” she said, estimating a 25% increase in emotional spending among her patients.
Both in the U.S. and globally, emotional spending has a 5.8% lifetime prevalence, Dr. Korie said. A lifetime prevalence is “the proportion of a population who, at some point in life has ever had the characteristic,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
And emotional spending, the way it presents itself and is described by patients, has its complex ways, according to Dr. Korie. So, she thinks about it in two different ways.
One way is as an unspecific obsessive compulsive and related disorder. The other way is on the addiction or obsession spectrum.
“We are evolutionary beings according to science,” Dr. Korie said. “The base of that simple principle is the fact that we are survival beings. We like to overcome stress.”
In other words, humans have a built-in defense mechanism to get away from discomfort and things that would cause us to be extinct. That innate human instinct has been the source of invention and innovation, but it’s also led to negative consequences, according to Dr. Korie.
“And this obsession is so interesting and it’s disturbing the function of this individual and it’s so much that all they can do or think they can do is to respond to it,” Dr. Korie noted. “And the idea is if I respond to it, it’s going to stop bothering me.”
In a pandemic setting in which people are couped up in their homes and listening to frightening news reports, this obsession can translate into emotional spending.
“That’s the apparent response to get away from the discomfort,” Dr. Korie said. “So, you go and you begin to see the world you would like to see online and then you shop and shop and shop until the money in the bank is gone.”
This behavior can bring a lot of stress to marriages and families, which could lead to greater anxiety, and even self-harm, said Dr. Korie.
Compared to what she had seen before the pandemic, Dr. Korie said she has observed an increase in emotional spending among young people.
“I think the increase might be related to school (and) going from being in the classroom to being at home,” Dr. Korie said, noting that medical literature has not yet addressed the topic. “I think the humungous increase in the number of hours that’s spent on the screen fuels that tendency to search online and shop.”
But that behavior may not necessarily be a person’s fault. After all, the brain is an organ with both genetic and environmental forces acting on it, Dr. Korie explained.
“The neurotransmitters that are implicated are so intertwined. You have the serotonin and the dopamine and adrenalin (and) the way they communicate is what determines what response that patient is going to have,” she said.
There are three actions people struggling with emotional buying can take.
First, Dr. Korie recommended seeking help.
“When you’re overwhelmed by something that you probably don’t understand exactly why it’s happening and is disturbing your overall optimal function, it’s time to seek help from a professional,” she said.
Next, fight the stigma of self-blame and be kind to your brain.
“Understand that every psychiatric disorder has an environmental and genetic component to it, so, honestly, clinically, it’s not your fault,” said Dr. Korie.
Last, take the medications prescribed to you.
“These medications are not quick fix pills,” Dr. Korie said, noting that neurogenic medications are healthy for the brain. “They help put your neurons in a healthy environment because when you have a mood disorder and it’s not treated, the neurons suffer and over time you can actually lose neurons and that’s not good.”
Consumers can also implement credit card best practices when shopping online, according to Nathan Grant, a senior credit analyst at Credit Card Insider, a consumer education company.
“A good rule of thumb in general, especially so given the current state of things, is to avoid spending money on credit cards for things that you wouldn’t be able to afford to pay in cash,” Grant said.
Budgeting is another helpful way of getting ahead of credit card debt. And avoiding a balance on your credit card has several benefits, including taking greater advantage of rewards, avoiding paying interest, and enjoying using a card with a higher annual percentage rate, Grant said.
“By making regular, on-time payments and lowering the amount of your available credit that is being used, you can help build your credit scores in the process,” he said. “Even a single late payment can remain on your credit reports for up to seven years, impacting your credit scores negatively.”
Dr. Ijendu Korie will discuss a variety of mental health topics at a virtual class on May 20. To register, visit Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital’s events calendar at henrymayo.com/classes-events.
To learn more about credit card use best practices, visit creditcardinsider.com/learn/using-credit-cards-responsibly.