A Grocery Shopping Guide for Anxious People

A Grocery Shopping Guide for Anxious People


trader joes crowded

Shopping in the Suburbs

Grocery shopping has always been a dreaded chore. Going to the supermarket happens often and cannot be avoided as easily as other forms of shopping. Navigating around abandoned shopping carts, waiting in long lines, and trying to get through a crowd leaves me feeling quite anxious.

In the suburbs, I could get away with going grocery shopping once a month. On a Sunday morning I would head out to the store, knowing it would be mostly empty and fully-stocked. Even though I was buying a lot of groceries, I could take my time since there wasn’t a crowd, then not have to worry about it for a few weeks. It still wasn’t fun but became an easy routine.

Then, I moved to a city where markets are just markets, not super.

Shopping in the City

In NYC, everything is small and the grocery stores are no exception. Few have full size carts and most of your shopping is done in a basket since you then need to carry everything home anyway. The store is always crowded and the aisles are seriously tiny.

On top of this claustrophobic shopping, you end up having to go to the store more often.

Once a month shopping trips are out of the question. I can’t carry that many groceries. I can’t stock up on bulk items. Grocery shopping has now become a once a week activity. Once a week at a tiny crowded store. No surprise I really dread grocery shopping now.

Strategy: Go on Off Hours

The first way I coped with grocery shopping while feeling anxious was to shop when the store would be much less crowded. This meant very close to its opening or closing times.

Planning out your trip works well but can be limiting. For example, I found myself setting up a lot of rules about grocery shopping. I couldn’t go to the store right after work because it would be too busy, so that meant going back out later in the evening.

For a while, I told myself I could only go to the store on Saturday or Sunday before 11a. Since the whole event makes me miserable, it became very easy to sleep in, not go to the store, not have any groceries, and just eat out instead.

Shopping during off hours is a step in the right direction as long as it doesn’t get too restrictive.

Strategy: Make a List

Making a grocery list is something I used to only do if I was buying specific ingredients for a specific recipe. Instead of a list, I would just wander up & down every aisle in the store trying to think of what I would want to make that week or what I needed to re-stock. This is a terrible idea.

Winging grocery shopping means you have to spend more time in the terrible store, you feel “lost” and “directionless” which can add to feeling anxious, and you end up buying things you don’t need.

Having a set list provides direction that keeps you focused. Instead of letting the feelings of being crowded overwhelm you, you can just focus on the task at hand.

If you are familiar with the store, you should write your list in the order of the aisles so your path through the store will be linear, you never have to backtrack, and this efficiency means even less time spent there.

Strategy: Outline a Weekly Meal Plan

How do you know what to put on your grocery list if you don’t know what you want to eat?

When I would shop without a list, the mere amount of options would become overwhelming. I couldn’t decide what I wanted, people would be in the way or bumping into me, I just wanted to get out of the store, I couldn’t find anything… and it became a terrible experience.

My general strategy to create a shopping list is to start with the circular (if your store has one). Items on sale are a good foundation because it helps to limit your choice! I go through and write down what is on sale that I like and could cook with.

Note: I know everyone’s anxiety is different but decision-making is a big anxiety trigger for me so the less options I have to choose from, the better.

Starting from the sale items I think about my schedule this week. This is important! What is your schedule! If it’s Tuesday and you have plans after work until Friday, then either wait until later in the week to shop or be aware of what you’re buying. Buying produce then not being able to eat it for 3 days might not be the best decision.

This is essential to limiting the amount of food you’ll throw away.

Think about your weekly schedule and determine which days you will be eating dinner at home. Look at the items on sale and come up with an outline of meals you can make based on that list. Then add to the list with other ingredients you’ll need with the meals, plus breakfast (yogurt/cereal) and lunch (leftovers/sandwiches).

This might sound like a lot but I usually do this the day-of my shopping trip on my lunch break, it will take no more than 10 minutes. For the peace of mind it gives me while shopping, totally worth it.

Strategy: Be Emotionally Prepared

Always be aware of when you are going to the store. I know this takes some energy but will probably be less energy than feeling anxious the entire time. If you find yourself having to go to the store at 1pm on a Saturday, prepare yourself.

Instead of walking into a bomb zone, tell yourself that it will be crowded, there will be lines, but arm yourself with a grocery list, remember to breathe, and make your trip as efficient as possible. (This is advice I am giving you but is very difficult to take myself).

Westside Market on Flickr
Via Flickr

Other Suggestions?

Grocery shopping is a task that cannot be easily avoided so learning how to cope with this anxiety-inducing chore can at least help you to be less miserable when it needs to be done. Since this is something I still struggle with, I’d love to hear how others who suffer from anxiety cope with grocery shopping or other types of shopping/crowded situations (Gotta be honest, I am so glad I never have to step foot in a mall anymore).


17 Replies to “A Grocery Shopping Guide for Anxious People”

    1. Having the same amount of items and people in half the space is definitely an adjustment. I guess anytime I experienced it traveling it was so “novel” that I wasn’t truly bothered.

  1. Grocery shopping makes me super anxious too; you’re not alone in this! This is something I actually work on a lot with therapy, and I have found that guided exposure over time has helped me quite a bit.

    You don’t say explicitly in your post, but I suspect this might be true for you too: the issue isn’t really grocery shopping for me in itself, but rather the buttons it pushes. Buttons about competence (“I am such a loser that this is so hard for me, adults should just be able to do their grocery shopping without batting an eye”) and about being in people’s way (“god that person much think I am such a klutz/so inconsiderate/so awful because I had to backtrack in front of them three times”).

    The tips you outline are all spot-on for minimizing anxiety in a controlled, behavioral sense, and I definitely practiced them all the time, without fail, once I figured out what worked. Once I mastered those, I started to feel very limited by only being able to go to certain stores at certain times, and feeling like my whole day had been ruined if I forgot my list, needed to go to the store at a “busy” time, or if I had a hard time in the store and had what I judged to be a less-than-perfect shopping trip.

    Lately, I’ve started working on NOT doing some of those things in order to build my tolerance for the anxiety in the first place, with the intention of having it lessen over time. Obviously, this has been gradual, and very one-step-forward, two-steps-back — but I purposely sometimes go to Whole Foods on a Saturday afternoon with no list and wander. I let myself take too long to hand over my cash at the register because I’m not as organized as I could be. I let people grump at me for being in their way, and I apologize sincerely, but try to let myself feel entitled to be there as much as they are.

    Obviously, the behavioral skills are invaluable and any time I am having a bad day and don’t really have the emotional resources to play the grocery shopping video game on hard, they’re nice to fall back on — but I’ve found it very rewarding to continue gradually toward being more comfortable in my environment in general.

    Not saying there is any “should” here, or that you “should” do what I have done — just sharing my story because I think this is a really common anxiety trigger for people, and you’re not alone in working on it diligently! :) xoxo

    1. Thank you for all your suggestions and insight! These are definitely more coping methods than solutions – I am in the middle part myself. I still need a list and want to get out of the store asap, but I can now go grocery shopping at any time (after work, saturday afternoon, whenever!) There became a point that giving myself rules to go shopping was more stressful than the anxiety myself. Also, I don’t always want to be in fear of the grocery store so I am, slowly, “forcing” myself to feel uncomfortable until, hopefully, that feeling goes away.

      I’m not quite at the “wandering around the store on a saturday afternoon” point yet because just thinking of that sounds terrifying. But I know that the only true way to get over this is to face it head-on. Glad to hear you’re working on this as it gives me hope!

  2. Grocery delivery. No more grocery stores for me. I live in the Bay Area, so I’m not sure if that’s available in NYC.

    1. There is Fresh Direct, it’s a little pricey and delivery means someone needs to be home to pick it up. I really should look into it more though, thanks for the reminder.

  3. I’m used to the suburbs and huge grocery stores. When I went to Chicago for a bachelorette party, we were trying to find a grocery store and realized the small store across the street was actually a full grocery store. Definitely packed!

  4. We typically do the ‘one time per week’ trip being in the suburbs. I’ve thought about the ‘city’ shopping and how that would differ. I think I would look at buying some staple items along with items I’d need for the next couple of days as the basis for shopping.

    Waiting in lines to check out and such that many times per week would likely drive me crazy though :)

  5. Thanks so much for this! I have the type of anxiety that seems to prefer flaring up at the grocery store. Here in the Midwest, our super markets look a lot like picture #1, but picture #2 is going to give me nightmares! You have my respect for braving that craziness.

    I completely agree about having a list. Going alone helps me too because then I have no one to complain to and I just have to deal with it. It can also be scarier when I’m alone though, so who really knows.

    My biggest “coping skills” are texting/fake-texting while shopping, smiling at people (much harder for them to be rude), and just getting out of there as fast as possible. I especially avoid going to the store with browsing types… can’t. stand. it.

    Thanks again for this piece. It makes me feel more “normal” :-)

    All my best,

  6. Thank you for such an enlightening post! You are so brave-kudos! I’d no idea I wasn’t an absolute “wuss” for feeling major anxiety before hitting the store. Reading about your experience helped me to understand my own issues. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. You’re not alone! Shopping, in general, can be really stressful. I’ve also found that although I’d prefer to avoid the store, grocery shopping more frequently actually helps to reduce my anxiety. It means I am more familiar with the store and I can get in & out quicker.

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