Supermarket anxiety is a real thing. Kimberly Gillian unpacks how to do the weekly shop without ~that~ dreaded feeling.
If you had to name a place you’d expect to suffer a panic attack, you might imagine that airports, doctor’s waiting rooms or a faulty elevator would top the list. But for many anxiety sufferers, it’s actually the everyday supermarket that is one of their biggest triggers. It’s something that mental health advocate Jill Stark is familiar with, after a trip to the tuna aisle for some sustenance gave her serious anxiety.
“When I was particularly unwell, I went to the supermarket to [buy the ingredients for] a tuna pasta because I thought that would be comfort food; something warm and hearty,” the author of When You’re Not Okay tells body+soul. “I was standing in the tuna aisle, feeling completely overwhelmed – there was ‘tuna in brine’ and ‘tuna in oil’ and ‘tuna with rice’ and ‘tuna with lemon and cracked pepper’ and ‘Korean barbecue flavour’. I just wanted a can of tuna and I couldn’t cope – I just dropped the bag and fled.”
Similarly, mental health advocate Ben Brooksby, who is behind the popular Naked Farmer rural mental health organisation, says the supermarket has been a major source of anxiety, knowing it usually comes with human interaction. “On several occasions, I would fill up the trolley full of groceries but as I prepared myself to go through the checkout, I would freak out every time, resulting in me ditching the trolley down the dog food aisle and walking out,” he says.
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So common is supermarket anxiety that Stark says a Scottish psychiatrist told her a popular food hall in the middle of Edinburgh was one of the most common places his patients had panic attacks. “He said it was because of the bright lights, low ceilings and cramped aisles,” she says. “To get out, you had to go up two sets of escalators and if you’re somebody who struggles with panic attacks, you’re always looking for the exit [thinking] ‘If I can’t breathe or if I feel the need to get out, where are the exits?’ If you can’t see the exits that can be quite stressful.”
Stark also puts supermarket anxiety down to the sensory overload. “Everything is really in your face – it can be very busy, everyone is in a hurry, no one is looking at each other,” she says. “It can feel almost a bit like The Hunger Games – it’s survival of the fittest, which is not a particularly calming state to be in, particularly if you struggle with anxiety. [Sometimes] you just want to be invisible, but it’s hard to be invisible in a supermarket because they’re so bright that you feel quite exposed.”
And when you are in a spiral of anxiety, being triggered by the supermarket can make you feel even worse. “When I left the supermarket unable to deal with the overload of choice, I felt like, ‘God, there is something so wrong with me that I can’t even handle a simple activity like going to the shops’,” Stark recalls.
“It seemed to underscore everything that I was thinking about myself – that I was a complete loser that couldn’t manage basic activities. [But] we need to be kind to ourselves and realise that this is something that lots of people struggle with and it doesn’t meant that you’re a broken human because you’re having a tough time under the strip lights of the supermarket.”
What to do if you struggle with supermarket anxiety
The good news is that Stark says that with a bit of forward planning and some sensible tactics, there are ways for people with anxiety to survive a supermarket shop.
Make a plan
“Write a list before you get in there so you don’t feel overwhelmed or paralysed by choice,” Stark suggests.
As much as you might be tempted to skip the supermarket altogether, Stark says it’s important that we fuel ourselves well if we’re having mental health struggles. “When you’re not okay, you can lose your appetite,” Stark says. “But it’s really important to try and eat something – anything – in order to have the energy to get through what you’re going through.”
Take a breather
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know you can walk out. “Take a few deep breaths and leave the supermarket if you need to,” Stark suggests. “It’s not the end of the world if you need to come back later.”
“Whether it’s a ‘click and collect’ or home delivery or buying meals online, you can have everything delivered to your door if you want to,” Stark says. “Although I should say that sometimes I think there is a place for social interaction and leaving the house if you’re struggling with your mental health.”
Choose your time
“If I’m not in a great place, I will not go to the supermarket because I know it’s going to make me feel worse,” Stark says. “When I do go, I try to go when it’s quieter [so] I’m not feeling rushed or jostled.”
Go easy on yourself
“If you’re having a really bad day, maybe the best thing for you is not to go to the supermarket – maybe that’s the day you order in some takeaway food,” Stark suggests. “I think it’s about learning to understand what you need at any given moment, rather than punishing yourself and saying, ‘I should be able to do this’.”