Unwrapping the psychology of Christmas shopping and Black Friday…and its impact on mental health

Unwrapping the psychology of Christmas shopping and Black Friday…and its 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.  People may get a transient buzz or sense of relief from clicking on the ‘pay now’ button but that evaporates very quickly, and they are left with debt which brings an increase in anxiety and apprehension - and can lead to despair.   Marketing ploys create a buzz which intensifies the ‘hit’ from the spend and makes it more likely to be repeated.

“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.  There are clever marketing experts who put a lot of time and energy into creating the environmental influences to drive up spending. That is indiscriminate and disproportionately sucks in the psychologically vulnerable. I don’t think blocking sites is the answer. We need to help people be more financially literate and broaden their understanding of marketing practices. We can prepare and support those whom we know engage in compulsive or emotional shopping, but the majority will just end up with a New Year debt hangover which threatens their emotional wellbeing.

“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 t&cs allow). If a purchase was impulsive, it was probably done for emotional reasons.  Ask yourself – do I really need it?”

Dr McLaren said the mental health effects of falling into debt could be extensive

He sees increasing number of patients suffering from stress where debt is a significant component. He said stress and anxiety were the major psychological effects of debt, but there were also other issues at play.

“The relationship between debt and psychological distress is complex.  It is associated with many different mental illnesses both through cause and effect.

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

Priory commissioned its own research and found that many young people in particular were suffering significantly from stress caused by debt. Younger Brits, aged 25-34, were more stressed than the rest of the population, giving rise to a term coined by psychologists as the ‘quarter life crisis’ -  which psychologists say occurs a quarter of your way through adulthood, in the period between 25 and 35. Bearing the hallmarks of the midlife crisis, it’s the period when younger adults are anxiety-ridden about a triple whammy of debt-inducing problems – student debt, rent and/or getting on the housing ladder, and starting a family.

Nearly one in three adults aged 25-34 said they had regular headaches, while a quarter felt constantly exhausted, according to Priory’s survey. While nearly 60% of working adults of all ages said their emotional health had deteriorated since 2005, mostly as a result of work and financial pressures fuelled by debt fears, the figure jumped to 70% for those in their mid-twenties and early thirties: 28% said they often felt exhausted, compared to 19% of the over 55s in work, 30% had regular headaches (compared to 20% of over 55s) and 23% said they were getting more bad-tempered – compared to just 13% of the over 55s.


“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 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.”

Anger and fear

“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 well-being. 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. A quarter of parents said that it had resulted in their children feeling stressed or anxious and 19% said that it contributed to them having mood swings.”

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

“If you are sedentary at work, and more overtime means fewer daily steps and less exercise, than that can increase your risk of obesity and its complications. Heart disease will also increase. 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 overwork to reduce that debt can create stress that gets in the way of this. There is a risk for those vulnerable to depression or anxiety disorders that 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 going to work, 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 interests, family, hobbies, personal development, job, physical health, parenting, friends. Stress and anger are identified by cardiologists as having links with heart trouble, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, stomach ulcers. Look at the impact of your sleep and diet and exercise on how you feel, and consider making changes which could impact on your emotions and reduce your stress.



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About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

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