Grocery shopping during COVID-19 can be fraught with anxiety. Here's how to cope

From dodging other shoppers to facing empty shelves, grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic is far from routine

Laura Brehaut 7 minute read May 6, 2020

Our increased vigilance isn’t only due to the unpredictable behaviour of others. Stores look and feel different, with plexiglass shields, delineated queues, security guards, disinfecting wipes, and people decked out in face masks and gloves. According to a new survey conducted by Dalhousie University and Angus Reid, 64 per cent of Canadians are buying more groceries than usual so they don’t need to shop as often.

Saddled with worried thoughts, racing hearts and clenched jaws, for some, even infrequent trips to the grocery store can be fraught with anxiety.

“If you’re a senior or someone with an immune-compromised system, going to the grocery store is kind of like going into a war zone,” says Halifax-based clinical social worker Sue Mercer, a researcher and expert for the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The intensity of grocery store anxiety varies person to person, but for those who have had prior experiences with food insecurity or disordered eating, going to the grocery store and seeing empty shelves can be distressing. If you lack the means to buy the food you need, there’s an added layer of stress. And then there’s the fear that comes with potential exposure to COVID-19.

A routine trip to the grocery store is no longer so straightforward. As a result, some people who have never felt anxious before may be experiencing new emotions and physical sensations. For people who have an anxiety disorder, responses may be heightened.

Grocery shopping

“(Grocery store anxiety) is common across a lot of different people,” says Suze Berkhout, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a clinician-investigator at the University Health Network. “Realizing that the anxiety is normal, to some degree, can help lower the intensity of it. You can remind yourself, ‘This is an unprecedented situation. It is normal to feel anxious in these situations. I’m not losing my mind. I’m going to be able to cope.’ Normalizing that anxiety is an important thing.”

In general, anxiety is the relationship between your perception of a possible threat and your sense of how well you’re able to deal with it, says Berkhout. Grocery shopping during the pandemic is rife with uncertainty. With reports of “silent spreaders” transmitting the disease while asymptomatic or presymptomatic, judging the level of risk COVID-19 presents isn’t as cut and dry as say standing on the edge of a cliff, she explains. Doubt elevates the risk, but the more in control we feel helps lessen anxiety.

“In a grocery store situation, you want to think about, ‘How do I bump up my sense that I can cope with this? What is in my control to be able to cope with this? I can’t control the people who are around me, who are also grocery shopping, so what can I control?’ says Berkhout. “‘I can control what time of day I go. I can control bringing things like hand sanitizer or wearing a face mask. I can control things by having a plan for how I’ll get through the grocery store. And then I can also control my sense of how well I can cope by reminding myself of other stressful times where I have been able to cope. And (drawing on) the things that I know work well for me.’”

Grocery shopping

The first step in managing anxiety, says Berkhout, is being able to recognize it when it’s happening. Worried thoughts (e.g., fear, frustration, irritability, anger, overgeneralizing, imagining worst case scenarios, emotional reasoning) coupled with physical sensations (e.g., increased heart rate, shallow and fast breathing, tension in your chest and neck muscles, feeling disconnected from your surroundings) are common symptoms. The degree to which you experience them will depend on your own personal circumstances, but there are coping strategies you can use to help mitigate the stress.

When we’re anxious, our “flight, fight or freeze system” is kicked into high gear. Rather than thinking through a particular situation and coming up with a solution, it causes us to be more reactive. That reactivity, Berkhout says, is what needs to be settled in order to alleviate anxiety. In the moment, when people are feeling panicky, stressed or anxious, they can use grounding techniques to stop the spiral of worried thoughts and sensations. “They help you connect back into, ‘OK. What is actually going on around me here, and how do I need to respond to it?’”

Focusing on breathing — inhaling over a four count, holding for a four count, exhaling and holding at the same pace, and repeating (known as box breathing or four-square breathing) — is a simple but effective way to relax. “It’s really hard to do other things while you’re at the grocery store, but breathing is one that can calm you down fairly quickly,” says Mercer. In addition to deep breathing, Berkhout recommends reconnecting with your senses: concentrating on the qualities of things you can see, hear, smell or touch.

If you’re a senior or someone with an immune-compromised system, going to the grocery store is kind of like going into a war zone

Sue Mercer

You can also move your body in ways that will promote relaxation — unfurrow your brow, unclench your jaw or relax your shoulders. “Your body becomes very tense when you’re in a flight, fight or freeze mode a lot of times. So can you lower your shoulders. You can try to relax your face. Physically reverse the kinds of things that your body is doing when it is tense and anxious,” says Berkhout. “Then you can try to work with things like those worried thoughts to say, ‘Is this realistic? Does this make sense?’ Working with the thoughts comes once you’ve got more of that physical and emotional side of things a little bit more calm.”

Planning ahead is key to keeping grocery store anxiety in check. Mercer recommends visualizing a grocery store you know well, and making a list charting your path through it so you’re not backtracking.

“If you feel more comfortable having a mask on, having gloves on, then do that. Equip yourself with what you need. And if you’re in there and you feel dizzy, or you feel that you can’t continue on, then just pay for what you have and get out. And figure out another plan for next time,” says Mercer. “If you go to the grocery store and you’re sweating, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, and you’re freezing upon walking in, then you know that it’s impacting you. So look at how else you can do that. Can you do it online? Can you get someone else to do it? It’s so important for people to know what their own realities are.”

Grocery shopping

If your level of anxiety is increasing, or you’re having feelings you’ve never had before, calling a support line or exploring other resources can help you identify what you’re facing. (Berkhout recommends Anxiety Canada as a starting point.) If you’ve tried some of the coping strategies, and still feel that you need help, Mercer encourages contacting a help line — either telephone, online or chat — and obtaining clinical support, if necessary, from a psychologist, clinical social worker, or clinically trained counsellor.

“It’s all about knowing yourself, and really knowing what your limits are. And that’s hard for people. We’re in a different time, so it takes a little bit of different thinking and different creativity,” says Mercer. “Reach out. People always worry about the impact it’s going to have on other people. But just by reaching out you can save yourself a lot of hurt and increased anxiety.”