Posted in Environment, Wellness

Using mindfulness to combat compulsive buying

So, I shop and make purchases compulsively sometimes, and it can be a problem. It’s wasteful of resources, it wastes my time and energy, the purchases are unnecessary, I don’t enjoy the process (except for a little ‘rush’ of adrenaline or dopamine or something, which is over quickly and is followed by feeling crappy) and it’s hard on the pocketbook. (I know, first world problems, right?)

Lately, I’ve been doing some ‘training’ in mindfulness meditation. I’ve been trying to use a 3-minute breathing space tool (available from a lot of pages online, youtube, etc.) to put a bit of distance between my impulse to shop and the actual behaviour of shopping. It doesn’t mean I never shop, but I have been:

1) shopping less often;

2) spending less time per shopping session (most of mine are online); and

3) making fewer purchases.

Plus when I do shop, it seems more like a conscious decision than something I can’t stop myself from doing. I remember I used to spend hours shopping online without even realizing how long it had been, and I couldn’t remember ever having started the shopping session, or having made the decision to shop in the first place.

The 3 minute breathing space goes like this (you can do it whenever you like – any time you have three minutes):

When I feel the urge to shop, I mentally press PAUSE and take a 3-minute breather. (BTW, first I had to train myself to recognize the impulse, rather than diving straight in before I even knew what I was doing.)

I don’t tell myself “NO” or insist that I mustn’t shop, and I don’t beat myself up for having the impulse. (I acknowledge fully that the habit is destructive and counterproductive, and I take responsibility for it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t help me to beat myself up or run through a laundry list of why it’s bad. I just don’t find it effective; when I’d beat myself up, I’d end up feeling bad and shopping anyways.)

An audio recording of the 3-minute breathing space is saved on my desktop so that it’s on hand right away, and I also have a little paper poster tacked to my wall, which outlines the activity.

It’s basically as follows:

Sit comfortably and close the eyes.

Step one: Awareness.

Attend broadly to one’s experience. Just silently take note of it without judgement, and without the need to change what is being observed. Especially pay attention to how the body feels. How does the skin feel? Note temperature, tingling, etc. How do the muscles in the different parts of the body feel? And so on. What are the thoughts going through the mind right now? What feelings do you find in yourself at this moment? Acknowledge whatever you happen to feel, even if the feelings are unwanted. 

Step two: Gathering.

Focus on the breath. Narrow the field of attention to focus on the breath in the body, and the various sensations associated with it. Attend to each in-breath and out-breath. If you forget to notice a breath, just congratulate yourself for noticing, and gently bring attention back to the breathing.

Step three: Expanding.

Attend to the body. Widen your attention again to include the body as a whole and any sensations that are present. 


It sounds hokey, but if you try it and don’t like it, you will have only lost 3 minutes, so who cares?

Some sensations and thoughts I’ve noticed in myself right before I was about to shop have included sensations of tightness in the shoulders, a knot in the belly, and thoughts like “I need a pick-me-up,” or “I can’t focus on this deadline, it’s too stressful.” Just realizing that I’m having these kinds of thoughts and feelings helps re-orient me to the reality that my urge to shop usually has nothing to do with actually needing or wanting to buy something. (Usually I’m avoiding something.) Taking a moment to attend to the breath and the body serves to ‘anchor’ me in the real world and helps me deal with stressful or overly-dramatic feelings and thoughts, like “I can’t finish this task in time! I’m DOOMED!”


Also, when I do end up shopping, I do a 3 minute breathing space right after I’m done. It helps me, I think, to be more honest with myself and more realistic about how I really feel after having shopped. I usually assume shopping will make me feel better, but to be honest, it basically never does.

Again, it’s not about beating yourself up for having done something foolish. It’s just a way of being aware and mindful of what you’re really feeling, and about the types of thoughts you’re having. With practice, you can start to notice yourself having certain thought biases that basically everyone engages in at some time or other. It’s normal to have these kinds of thought patterns, but it’s also helpful to recognize them for what they are when they occur, so that you can react to them intentionally (rather than automatically and without even realizing how you arrived at a particular outcome).



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