Hijacked by Your Brain

How to free yourself when stress takes over

How to Avoid Impulse Buying

Recognizing you're stressed can make all the difference

It's the holiday shopping season and there are so many wonderful things to buy: for the people you love, for friends and coworkers, even that little something for you.

The problem is, you keep buying. You have everything on your list and you still get that sweater that you really want, but don't need.

Your credit cards: they don't help. They make it worse. They invite you (sometimes it literally feels like they call you) to make more purchases than your paycheck can cover.

And then you see your credit card statement. It happens every January, or maybe every month. You look at the number and wonder who spent that much. Too many times, after the shopping's done, we don't even know why we bought the things sitting in our closet, with the tags on them, unworn.

Reality check time via the power of brain science. There is a way to enjoy shopping more than ever before, a way to feel genuinely satisfied and only buy a fraction of all the things your stressed-out holiday brain tells you you must buy.

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First, take just a moment and picture your brain. Deep inside there is an alarm center, the amygdala, which can keep us safe and alert. But it also can get into the habit of driving us to do anything, almost anything, to give us relief when we start to get stressed out.

Now picture that alarm going from a mild and soft wake-up call to a blaring emergency siren when stresses start to pile up. You are already feeling overwhelmed by the change in weather, the parties, the end of year deadlines, the pressure to get just the right present for the seventeen people you want to buy for, and all the usual stresses (smart phones binging, longer work weeks, endless commutes, and the eternal challenges of children and family). Can you feel your stress rising?

This is absolutely normal. It doesn't mean there is anything wrong with you. In fact, it means that the alarm portion of brain is working perfectly. You have a gazillion things on your list and in your life and your alarm doesn't want you to forget anyone or anything.

The problem comes when you're shopping and to feel better, you buy something you don't really want. The buying feels good—or maybe it's just a feeling of relief. You say, sometimes out loud and people look at you: "Gotcha!" or "Finally, I found it" or "I got the bargain of the century!" It seems like a release from the feeling of stress. And that's the point. You're not impulse buying because there is something wrong with you, but there's something wrong with relying on (or being trapped in) impulse buying as a way to relieve the stress of your life.

Here's another option. Instead of being driven by the alarm in your brain to give up control and buy on impulse, step back and regain your focus on what's most important.

The technique is called SOS. It's something you can practice throughout your day. And if you do, it will be there when you need it.

First, step back. To step back is to clear your mind, to let go of trying to figure out or solve every problem in the world. Step back for just a few seconds. This could involve taking a break, taking a few slow pleasant breaths, relaxing tense areas in your body, getting up and stretching—whatever enables you to sweep your mind clear for just a few seconds. This begins to reset the alarm. While you generally wouldn't do a yoga pose in a board meeting where you are stressed, at the mall, go for it. It might even inspire a yoga flash mob.

Second, orient yourself to what you most deeply value and believe in, again, just for a moment. You can do this by making a conscious choice to think about—or visualize or imagine—what's most important to you.

A value is something like "I only buy what I really need" or "I value saving my money."

A belief is something like "I am the kind of person who loves shopping, but spends wisely."

To orient is to re-connect to who you really are. Think about the words, or visualize the thing or person you're saving for, or imagine yourself with a bank account with a little extra money in it. Amazingly, this is possible to do in a matter of seconds if you practice. You may think what's most important is the sweater, but that is only the impulse. When you're oriented, you've disengaged from immediate reactions by re-connecting to what you most deeply value, and this is the one thing that reliably turns down the alarm in your brain.

Finally, self check. Measure two quick things. First, how stressed are you, on a scale from 10 being the worst ever to 1 being completely calm and relaxed? Second, how oriented are you, on a scale from 10 being totally focused on your deepest values and 1 being completely caught up in mindless reactions and impulses? The self-check helps you to be aware of how stressed you are so that you aren't blindsided by stress that you're not paying attention to. And the self-check also is a helpful reminder that no matter how stressed you feel you always have the choice to orient yourself based on what you really value and believe in.

Remember, don't wait until you're on a shopping spree to do the SOS. The best way to do SOS is throughout the day when you're not stressed. Take a few minutes to step back by sweeping your mind, then orient by focusing on one thing, and finally self-check your stress level and your level of orientation.

Then, when you face that choice of whether to shop until you drop, or to buy something just because you feel you "have to have it," you'll be able to step back just long enough to decide whether you're spending because you're stressed, or because this is truly going to create the lasting pleasure that comes from buying something precious, something that's really you.

Hijacked by Your Brain blogs are co-authored with Jon Wortmann. Visit our website at www.hijackedbyyourbrain.com. You can follow us on facebook or join us on twitter @hijackedbook.

 

Julian Ford, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

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