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How can Christmas shopping and Black Friday impact on mental health?

Marketing ploys, designed to get us to spend, press an array of psychological buttons and play on our competitive - and herd – instincts, says Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist and medical director of Priory’s Hayes Grove Hospital.

“We are attracted to things, and then the unconscious drivers kick in. The mass marketing through social media of events like Black Friday and half-price sales means that we all get to know about them. For those who are vulnerable to emotional purchasing, it will be very difficult to resist.

“In terms of limiting the influence Black Friday and Christmas and ‘sales’ shopping in general has on people’s thinking and spending, it’s all about education. 

“So if you notice a friend or family member with a particular problem such as spending well beyond their means, or buying presents that aren’t necessary, my first piece of advice is to talk to them about it. Have a conversation and explain why you are concerned. Try to find out if they are concerned about anything else. Are they suffering from depression? Is this an addictive habit? If you think they have an underlying emotional problem, then encourage them to seek professional help.

“On a very pragmatic level, if someone suspects that they, or a friend, are well over their spending limits, I really do advise checking your bank balance every day. As soon as you realise what you are doing, send stuff back (if the terms & conditions allow). If a purchase was impulsive, it was probably done for emotional reasons. Ask yourself – do I really need it?”

The mental health effects of falling into debt can be extensive

Dr McLaren has seen an increasing number of patients suffering from stress where debt is a significant component.

“Debt can arise through problems with ‘impulse control’ - the most obvious being gambling - but in our consumer driven society we increasingly see shopping and online shopping as a manifestation of mental illness. Debt in turn is the stress that cannot be avoided, and, for many people, it is the point at which they have to confront their distress and dysfunction.”

Depression and anxiety

“Because there are creditors involved in debt (and its collection), the stress is not going to go away  and that stress can exacerbate depression or anxiety, substance misuse, and the ‘impulse control’ problem which contributed to its generation. Breaking that vicious circle is the major challenge in recovery.”

Headaches and exhaustion

Nearly one in three adults aged 25-34 said they have regular headaches, while a quarter feel constantly exhausted, according to a Priory survey.

Nearly 60% of working adults of all ages also said their emotional health has deteriorated since 2005, mostly as a result of work and financial pressures fuelled by debt fears.

Dr McLaren says: “It is unsurprising that younger adult workers, worried about debt and housing felt they must put in the most overtime – with one in 10 of those aged 25-34 working between 11 and 20 hours of overtime a week, compared to 5% of those aged 35-44.

“If you are working so much that you do not have time for adequate sleep or exercise, then that will increase the risk to your mental health. It was accepted by employers and employees alike that the hours worked by junior doctors, a highly motivated workforce, in the NHS in the 1970s and 80s were so long – sometimes in excess of 120 hours per week – that they were toxic.”

Fear in children

“Even children feel the effects of debt, according to research by the Children’s Society. The strain placed on family relationships by financial difficulties associated with debt – whether this led to arguments between parents, or between children and parents – can have a huge impact on children’s wellbeing.

“As the Children’s Society says, there is also experiencing first-hand the emotional distress and fear of having bailiffs coming to the house or being evicted from your home.”

Shame and embarrassment

“Shame, embarrassment, failure and self-blame. Patients who come to Priory with debt issues often feel all of these about their situation. They suffer very low self-esteem and have lost confidence, and are sometimes despairing of ever getting ‘back on track.’”

Alcoholism and drug misuse

“Debt often means working more hours than is healthy for you, leading to imbalance and stress. If we then respond to the stress signals with bad coping strategies, such as alcohol to unwind or stimulant drugs to keep us going, we risk getting sucked into a vicious spiral that will end in addiction or depression.”

Physical health

“More overtime, and being sedentary at work means fewer daily steps and less exercise. This can increase your risk of obesity and its complications.

“Even if you are physically active at work, doing more overtime that doesn’t allow us to stay in balance with our sleep and exercise needs can increase the levels of stress hormones in our bodies and thus, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Lack of sleep

“Getting enough sleep so that you wake refreshed is an important indicator of a healthy pattern. Debt, and overworking to reduce that debt, can create stress that gets in the way of this.

“There is a risk that for those vulnerable to depression or anxiety disorders, an intense night’s work without sleep could trigger a relapse. It is important to know our limits and to understand our personal vulnerabilities. Getting enough time for relaxation and exercise, and to maintain healthy relationships with family or friends outside of work is imperative. Getting enough work to give you a sense of job satisfaction and a sense of looking forward to the day ahead, however, is important.”

Restoring your inner calm

“Reducing debt will have strong effects on your ability to remain calm, and in emotional and physical balance. It will reduce your reasons to worry, thereby reducing your fear, and the stress caused by that fear.

“It will enable you to keep perspective. Then you can step back and think ‘how much time am I devoting to my interests, family, hobbies, personal development, job, physical health, parenting and friends?'”

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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