Shopping Sales May Be Bad for Mental Health

(Image credit: Shopping bags via Shutterstock)

If all of the back-to-school sales and end-of-summer clearances are making you feel overwhelmed, you're not alone. A new study shows that the craziness of large sales may cause shoppers to experience symptoms of serious mental health conditions, such as anxiety or a loss of reality.

Researchers surveyed people who recently participated in a major sales event, such as Black Friday. According to the results, 20 percent of participants experienced high levels of anxiety during the shopping event, 23 percent experienced a change in their perception of reality known as "derealization," and close to 50 percent felt a lack of empathy for other shoppers.

The results may explain horrific incidences that have occurred at Black Fridays in the past, said study researcher Noel Hunter, a doctoral student in psychology at Long Island University in N.Y., such as trampling of shoppers, use of pepper spray and even a shooting.

Hunter said that marketing ploys, such as making certain sale items available for a limited time, boost anxiety. "They're purposefully trying to increase anxiety, which then results in all of these symptoms," Hunter said.

But people can take steps to reduce these symptoms, Hunter said.

For people who say they plan on attending major sales events, a psychologist might advise them to practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, and to have realistic goals in mind when shopping, Hunter said.

Hunter presented the study last week at the American Psychological Association meeting in Orlando, Fla. Because the study was small, more research is needed to confirm the results.

Hunter and colleagues found participants for their study through surveys posted on Facebook and Craigslist. Participants answered questions based on their experience at their most recent major sales event. Of the 31 people who completed the survey, 29 percent answered questions based on their experience during Black Friday.

The questions assessed the participant's levels of worry, physical anxiety, lack of empathy, fear, derealization and other symptoms during the shopping event. For example, questions about derealization asked participants whether they agreed that "While I was shopping, things did not seem real to me," and "I felt like I was walking in a dream."

Twenty-five percent of participants said they were worried about not getting the items they were searching for, and nearly 50 percent said they felt defeated.

Those who experienced anxiety were more likely to experience the other symptoms at much higher rates than those who did not experience anxiety, Hunter said.

Participants were asked to think only about how they felt during their shopping experience. If people experienced these symptoms on a regular basis, it could be indicative of serious mental illness, Hunter said.

Pass it on: Shopping at sales may induce high levels of anxiety that are bad for mental health, and lead some to harm other shoppers.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.