Upon hearing the news that the UK would be entering its first lockdown in March 2020, my instinct was to check social media immediately. I hoped to see how my loved ones were reacting to the announcement. I wondered what would happen to their jobs, their access to childcare, their romantic relationships and their mental health. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the only one panicking about the uncertainties of the future that lay ahead.
As I scrolled through various Instagram captions that mused on what quarantining would actually be like, I saw a photo of an amazing dress. It was lavender-hued, tiered and overlaid in a delicate lace; reminiscent of a contemporary take on Bridgerton before Bridgerton was a thing. In that moment, the anxieties I was experiencing about being confined to my home without any social contact beyond my toddlers and my husband were replaced by euphoria. Surely I could navigate being a working mum with no access to nursery or babysitters if I was wearing an excellent ensemble like that.
So I bought the dress. If this had been an isolated incident, it wouldn’t have necessarily been a big deal. I would’ve simply been a woman treating herself to a nice thing in a time of crisis. I mean, yes: we could dissect the harmful side effects of living in a capitalist culture which teaches us that buying things should directly correlate to our sense of worth, wellbeing or happiness, but that is a much larger conversation for another time. Anyway, the garment would have arrived and I would have enjoyed wearing it for a bit. Maybe the excitement would have lasted beyond a couple of uses; maybe not. In any case, the situation wouldn’t have been particularly concerning.
As someone with a decade-long history of struggling with compulsive buying disorder (also known as oniomania), however, the purchase foreshadowed my struggles in the year to come. About 10 months before the coronavirus pandemic began to change all of our lives, I had been attending weekly therapy sessions to discuss my generalised anxiety disorder and, in particular, the intersection of that anxiety with my relationship to shopping. After a lot of initial scepticism, I had even tried hypnotherapy for the first time and was genuinely feeling like I was making progress.
Where before I might have blown the vast majority of a paycheque on an ASOS haul or a new pair of Dr. Martens, regardless of what primary bills were due or whether one of my kids had outgrown their shoes, I was now taking steps to minimise my spending. I was letting things rest in my online shopping cart for a few days before purchasing — the aim being to determine whether the item stuck with me or lost its appeal after the initial spark of joy. I was resisting the urge to click through to retailers via Instagram, removing myself from social media when a targeted ad struck my fancy and distracting myself with a walk, a film or a play session with my daughters.
When COVID-19 hit, however, I (and the rest of the population) was suddenly encouraged to spend increased amounts of time on the internet — specifically, shopping on the internet. The behaviour that had previously gotten me into debilitating debt and put a plaster on more deeply rooted mental health struggles was suddenly being suggested to me on a governmental level. Without the help of my usual therapist (who has been on leave since last March), I’ve regressed into spending habits which I know are toxic — and, unfortunately, I am far from the only one.
In a press release emailed to Refinery29, Priory Group, the leading independent provider of behavioural care in the UK, explains that compulsive buying disorder (CBD) is believed to affect 8 to 16% of the UK population. Pamela Roberts, addiction programme manager at the Priory Hospital in Woking, writes: "People with oniomania feel completely ruled by the compulsion to shop and spend — either for themselves, or by excessive gifting to others."
In terms of COVID-19’s impact on the compulsive shopper, Roberts explains on the Priory website that the effects are quite varied. Some may be grappling with the realisation that their lives are "too prone to consumerism, and now want to hold back on all but essential purchases, with only the very occasional luxury item thrown in."
Others may be taking steps to support their local and independent shops when possible, focusing on more "sustainable consumption". With less disposable income, many of us are likely to be pushed towards being more conscious of our spending overall.
For heavier shoppers, however, Roberts explains that we "have been keeping the digital carts busy ... For those who are addicted, shopping is the medicine — usually a temporary comfort from stress, anxiety, loneliness, and fear for example, chased closely by guilt and shame."
Carolyn, who is based in the north of England, tells Refinery29 that she has struggled with compulsive spending from the time she was 13 and receiving an allowance. "I think the reasons why are complex and multifaceted but I had a lot of mental health issues from being about 12 (I was first prescribed Prozac at 13), possibly triggered by a very acrimonious divorce, and I had a number of behavioural problems which, having just recently been diagnosed with severe ADHD, I have a bit more of an understanding about," she explains.
"I have spent thousands of pounds online this last year," she adds. "I’ve saved absolutely nothing by not being able to go on holiday or out to dinner, etc. I quite genuinely spend hours each day scrolling aimlessly, online shopping, searching for the next dopamine hit."
Considering that other go-to forms of attaining happiness hormones (like listening to live music, hitting the gym or laughing with friends IRL) have suddenly become difficult or impossible, it makes sense that those of us who have a history of compulsive spending would find ourselves turning to shopping during lockdown. Anxiety, depression and agoraphobia have been on the rise for nearly 12 months and, as with any addiction, shopping can become a coping mechanism.
Malaysia-based Ratnadevi Manokaran tells Refinery29 that being home all the time has left her feeling like she needs more things. "I need homeware, activewear, even things like paint and craft items; just everything and anything to distract me," she says. "I could be out browsing for the most unexpected thing and I will see someone using it on their TikTok and be like, 'Ohhhh now I need that too!' Like new cutlery or place mats."
"I was never really into homeware before but I also understand [that] this [is partly because] I am spending more time at home [and] I want to make my house/the things that I normally do have a bit more significance and elevation, so I do like to have something prettier to display my food, new paintings, art sheets for my room, etc."
Manokaran notes that she has created some rules around phone usage in an attempt to curb her spending. "No browsing before I meditate, make my bed, pray, eat breakfast, and the same for my night routine. I find that this helps to reduce my impulse shopping that sometimes happens mostly at night when I am bored or after I have seen [something] on someone’s IG," she shares.
"I also tell myself to wait for about one or two days before making the purchase. If it is skin/body/hair care, I wait until the products I have are empty before I buy new ones. As for clothes, it’s helped that I now spend 95% of my time at home and seriously have no business buying new clothes now. I have opted for thrift shopping and also only buying when necessary and only buying key pieces to add to my wardrobe. I no longer am thrilled to buy pieces for one-time usage."
Although many of us struggle with the dopamine hit of an online purchase, it’s critical to remember that there are other ways of accessing this neurotransmitter, many of which are still available during lockdown. Exercising, eating more protein, sleeping enough, meditating and listening to music are all among them.
If none of that helps, "severing the router" might be the next best option, jokes Carolyn.