Stories from Mental Challenges

How to deal with the overwhelming anxiety of going to the grocery store right now

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerMay 6, 2020

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Photo: Stocksy/ANI DIMI

The grocery store’s freezer aisle is not somewhere I would recommend having a panic attack. It’s cold, it’s public, and it makes brightly colored popsicles the weird backdrop to you sobbing into your shopping cart.

I know this because it happened to me the first time I braved the supermarket to restock my COVID-19 food supply. I felt a serious bout of grocery store anxiety before my mission even began, but thought having a plan would ease my high tension. I walked in wearing my mask, gloves, and armed with enough coveted hand sanitizer to sterilize every single cart; I knew exactly what I needed, and figured I could be in and out in less than 20 minutes. But at minute 36, while hyperventilating next to a freezer full of tilapia, I realized my plans had fallen through.

Whether you’re in full-on lockdown mode or easing back into society while still observing social distance guidelines, the grocery store is one of the few essential places you’re not only allowed to visit but likely might need to visit. And at a time when our collective anxiety is already at an all-time high, these outings are ripe for making a bad mental-health situation even worse.

“Stress is when our basic needs—such as food, shelter, love, and security—are not being met. And right now, our basic need for security and survival is being threatened, and we feel limited in our ability to protect ourselves,” says Josephine Atluri, a meditation teacher who focuses on coping techniques for stress and anxiety. “Thus, going out into the world for groceries or medicine when we feel unprotected triggers our anxiety because of our lack of control in the situation.”

“We are in constant fight-or-flight mode, and the simple task of going out for essentials that we took for granted just weeks ago only heightens our state of stress.” —Josephine Atluri, meditation teacher

Even if you’re wearing a mask and gloves and are diligent about sanitizing yourself and your haul, the thought of going out into a virus-ridden world can feel really scary, making grocery store anxiety a very real situation. “We are essentially in constant fight-or-flight mode right now, and the simple task of going out for essentials that we took for granted just weeks ago only heightens our state of stress,” says Atluri.

This fight-or-flight response spikes cortisol and puts our bodies on high alert, which can manifest physical symptoms of stress, like panic attacks. “These days, our bodies are equating grocery shopping with going into combat,” says Atluri. “We’re fighting for our lives every time we step outside our door, except this time our enemy is silent and invisible, which can often feel even more frightening. In turn, our nervous system releases stress hormones at the thought of putting ourselves in harm’s way.”

While grocery delivery services like FreshDirect and Instacart can help some people avoid these anxiety-inducing outings, in many places these options are limited or don’t exist at all. So, what can you do to minimize grocery store anxiety and make the experience feel as non-threatening as possible?

“Noticing when we’re starting to get worked up is a great place to try to start to calm down,” says psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer, PhD. “If your brain starts to get anxious, you can take some deep breaths and literally calm your physiology, and then go to the grocery store in a calm mental place.” He suggests trying grounding breathing exercises before you go into the store to help prep your mind and body for the potentially stressful situation ahead.

Taking the necessary precautions, like wearing a mask, bringing in a physical paper list that you can throw away when you leave the store (and leaving your phone behind), and only touching what you plan to buy are easy steps you can take to temper grocery store anxiety. Sanitizing your groceries, your hands, and your clothes when you get home is a good idea, too, he says, because when you can trust that you’re doing everything in your power to stay safe, you’ll hopefully be avoid a subsequent panic attack in the freezer aisle.

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