A friend struggling with a financially devastating divorce greeted me for lunch by saying, “At least nothing bad can happen while I’m wearing my new shoes.” As a psychologist who specializes in treating compulsive shopping, I believe my friend’s counter-productive magical belief is not unique. In fact, it may be a growing sign of the times.

Even as credit card debt hits an all-time high and payment delinquencies jump, holiday retail sales exceeded expectations and overall retail sales continue to rise year over year. Inabilities to stop over-shopping, in other words, may be an increasingly widespread problem. In this era of high crime, global conflicts, tense political times, and increased media use, I believe many are increasingly turning to “retail therapy” to cope with heightened anxieties and facing financial problems as a result.

In 1978, psychologist Lita Furby conducted a landmark study to understand why we shop by asking 420 people, “What motivates your desire for possessions?” Answers revealed we shop to feel enhanced control over areas of our lives we lack control over, or are anxious about. In line with her findings, compulsive buying, defined as persistent and excessive buying despite adverse consequences, is highest following fearful events such as after a significant loss due to a break-up or death, a job termination, or after a traumatic incident such as hurricane Katrina. We are most likely to double down on “retail therapy,” in other words, when we feel uncertain and afraid.

In reflecting on the origins of my own splurge impulses, in childhood I spent countless hours playing with my Barbie while amassing dozens of retail outfits used to extend her imagined universe. In real life at the time, I was overwhelmed with anxieties as my parents fought constantly in the preamble to their divorce. Through Barbie-play I could imagine and feel what it would be like to live a hyper-normal life, to be filled with a sense of agency, to feel ensconced in a safe and predictable world. Nothing bad ever happened in Barbie-land. I coped with my intense feelings of powerlessness by immersing myself in my controllable Barbie bubble, one purchased accessory at a time. At the risk of bursting bubbles, many adults may be similarly coping with today’s anxieties by surrounding themselves in retail bubbles.

Shoppers carry bags
Shoppers carry bags.

Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Like me with Barbie, many cultures both ancient and modern use material objects to feel a greater sense of control in the face of frightening surroundings. Ancient Mayan leaders believed wearing Jaguar pelts enabled the Jaguar god Ahua Kinich to enter their souls and make them more ferocious, strong, and magically protected. Similarly, as early as 4,000 B.C. in ancient Egypt as well as in ancient India people made daily offerings to statues representing various deities in an effort to connect with the god’s powers and curry its favors. Tendencies to believe objects contain the capacity to make us more powerful and protected when we feel at-the-mercy of our circumstances may be deep-rooted in us all.

In today’s world, increases in media and social media use may be both increasing anxieties and putting tendencies to turn to products to protect us from fears on overdrive. In his best-selling book, Hooked, tech psychologist Nir Eyal explained that online platforms keep us engaged by providing alerts and feeds that trigger anxiety and fear. For example, if a user were to stop browsing, a pop-up alert about scary election-impacting news might prompt re-attention and further nervous scrolling. Social media platforms, such as Instagram or Facebook, may be particularly anxiety-inducting and can heighten negative self-comparisons and body image insecurities in users. The longer the time on the platform and the higher the anxiety, the more we may be primed for “one click” retail solutions. The formula is effective. According to a recent report, 81 percent of us shop online and social media sites, in particular, are associated with an increase in impulse purchases, as well as more chronic compulsive shopping. Little wonder then that many face hefty layaway and credit card debt.

The products we seek to help us feel better are placebos. We are misattributing our powers. For clients I treat, the first step toward growth is to uncloak illusions and take brave steps to name the real root causes of fears and pains. One tip: pause before clicking “buy” and instead journal what the underlying motivation might be. When we identify root causes, desires for a purchase often fade.

In these times, we must all learn to re-shift our spiritual centers of gravity. This can start with a daily choice: Do we keep indulging in easy retail solutions? Or, do we step toward uncertainty and fear in a quest to find the real untapped powers that lie dormant within us?

Dr. Monique Moore is a clinical psychologist based in Washington, D.C. Her writings on mental health struggles unique to women and the psychology of shopping have appeared in the Financial Times and The Daily Beast. She previously worked for the Psychological Health Centers of Excellence (PHCoE) where she authored numerous scholarly publications related to enhancing well-being and preventing psychological health disorders in military and veteran populations. Dr. Moore holds an MA in communications, culture, and technology from Georgetown University, and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her doctoral dissertation focused on compulsive shopping disorders.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.