Mental Illness Goes Grocery Shopping

Mental illness goes grocery shopping: getting there, remembering, deciding, and avoiding people

Living alone, I have to do all my own grocery shopping. It’s been that way for years, so no big deal, right? Well, what used to be a simple task has become a bit more of a production with mental illness tagging along. It turns out grocery shopping with mental illness isn’t a great combination.

My grocery shopping process

Getting there

The grocery store is a 10-minute walk from where I live. I usually walk, but sometimes I don’t even have the energy for that, or I’m not feeling physically up to it because of assorted physical health stuff going on, so I drive. I usually go twice a week.

On the walk there I try to be mindfully aware of the birds and the tree leaves rustling and such things, but if there’s too much stimulation from people, traffic, etc., I start to experience some derealization. I tend to conceptualize this as looking out at the world from further back in my head. It’s sort of like there’s a clear jello barrier between me and the rest of the world. I’m still connected to reality, but a bit distanced from it.

This isn’t an issue for me, but for anyone dealing with social anxiety, that can be a huge barrier to push through to even get out of the house.

Dazed and confused

That mildly dissociated effect continues when I’m in the store. I generally try to go in the morning when it’s not that busy, since peak times are pretty overstimulating. I’ll avoid making eye contact with anyone if at all possible.

I don’t do well with decision-making on the fly, so I always use a grocery list. The Google Keep app on my phone takes care of that, and I’ll carry my phone in my hand for the duration of the time I’m in the store. Depending on the level of cognitive symptoms I’m experiencing, I may remember much of what’s on my list, or I may remember nothing at all, and even with the list may still not manage to get everything I needed.

I sometimes need to make my list extremely detailed, otherwise, when I’m in the store, I’ll spend ages staring at the shelf deciding what brand and package size to get. It’s not unusual for me to end up simply not getting something because I can’t make a decision about which specific thing to get. While some people overthink when trying to make decisions, I tend to under-think, and the decision-making part of my brain just goes totally off-line.

My local store did some renovating last summer and moved a lot of things around from where they’d been for years. I still haven’t figured it out and need to use the aisle signs, even to find staple items I buy on a frequent basis.

Avoiding people

I avoid the pharmacy area; it’s where I used to get my meds, but there was an issue a few years back with them not filling my quetiapine prescription right before I was about to leave on a trip. Being not particularly stable, I raised a fuss and switched to another pharmacy. I don’t have any regrets about either the fuss or the switch, but ever since I just don’t feel comfortable even being in that area of the store.

This particular store always has lots of staff on the floor during the day, and they’re all quite friendly. While that might make the store more pleasant for a lot of people, I hate it. I’ve been shopping there a long time and recognize many of the staff, and occasionally with particularly vigorous greeters I’ll stop and pretend to be absorbed in looking at something to avoid having to interact with them. Yes, I am that asocial.

Checkout time

Continuing on with the asocial theme, I’m all about the self-checkout. I have no desire to interact with a human being who may be annoying and want to do small talk chatter. I’ve been doing self-checkout at this store for years, so I’m used to it, but sometimes my mind will go blank and I’ll stare confusedly at the till for a while.

The store charges for plastic bags, and you have to enter how many you’ve used. For some reason, I can’t just look at the bagging area and instantly see how many I’ve used. Unless there’s only one bag, I have to count by physically pointing at each bag. One-two-three. I’m not sure why I can’t do that basic task completely in my head, but it is what it is.

Shopping and decision-making

Now that we’ve looked at my own experience, let’s consider some other ways that mental illness can affect decision-making while grocery shopping. The basic scenario we’ll use for the post is being at the grocery store, standing in the cheese section, and needing to make a difference about what kind of cheese to get.


Perhaps contamination obsessions are telling you that if you don’t pick the right cheese and take it home in exactly the right way, funky bacteria in the cheese will wipe out your family.

Needing to make the “right” choice

Perhaps your inner critic tells you that if you make the wrong cheese choice, your family, or whoever you might be serving the cheese to, will decide that your bad cheese choices make you a useless human being, and you’ll be stuck with that shame until the end of time.

Not trusting your judgment

The self-doubt monster might be sitting on your shoulder all the way to the checkout, and perhaps all the way home, hissing at you that you know sweet bugger all about cheese and you’re not even close to being qualified to make any cheese-related decisions.

Overwhelmed by pros & cons

More options is not necessarily a good thing. With 3 options, you’ve got 3 sets of pros and cons to weigh. With 10 options, you’ve got a headache. If you’ve got 20 options, your brain might explode.

Thought paralysis

This can happen a few different ways. You might be paralyzed by indifference, and you couldn’t care less what kind of cheese you get, because you really don’t care about much of anything lately. You think you might possibly care when it’s time to eat the cheese, but it’s hard to make a decision based on a future possible interest.

You might also be paralyzed by overthinking. Similar to getting overwhelmed, this paralysis gets stuck in overanalyzing. Going so far in the analytical direction leaves you with nothing in the right here, right now. Wikipedia offers this quote from Alfred Henry Lewis: “The best thing is to do the right thing; the next best is to do the wrong thing; the worst thing of all things is to stand perfectly still.”

Or, like me, you may be paralyzed by underthinking. The part if the brain that makes decisions is away on vacation. The relative merits of the different cheeses don’t even enter the equation.


What? There’s cheese? I didn’t even realize I was in the grocery store…

Same same… and same

Decision-making can be avoided entirely if you get the same cheese every single time.

Manic buffet

Then there’s the manic need to have as much cheese as possible, as quickly as possible, and throw in the most expensive cheeses from the deli for good measure. Credit card limit? What’s that?

So there you have it, a multitude of ways that mental illness can affect the experience of grocery shopping. Do you have relatively simple routine activities that you’ve needed to adapt because of your mental illness?

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70 thoughts on “Mental Illness Goes Grocery Shopping”

  1. I also go to the grocery store early to avoid all the people, I sometimes go at like 5 in the morning if I’m able to. I’ve gone later but I prefer when it’s quiet and there aren’t a bunch of people everywhere. It’s frustrating too because if I’m looking at something and someone comes up behind me I get anxious and feel like I have to rush to choose so they can look. I also have a habit of going through the store very fast, I go and get things done quickly, so when I go later in the day I have had a few instances of almost crashing into others carts haha 🙂

  2. I can relate to all of this… I did live on my own for many years and had to do it. Even when I go with hubby, it still stresses me out, and sometimes I get there, and can’t face going in there. So he has to go in. I’ve usually given him a list.

  3. So I have the derealization often and used too, daily. I didn’t realize it to be a symptom of my mental illness as I thought it were a side effect. How similar is this to disassociation?

    1. It’s a form of dissociation. For a long time I didn’t think of what I had as dissociation, since it’s so much milder than what people often experience, but I guess maybe since it’s an offshoot of the depression it hasn’t gotten any worse.

  4. At one time I would avoid all conversations while around the store and checkout and just focus on what I was there for, but now I can handle chatting.
    As for going round the store dissociated. This can happen to me depending on how I am. Today, I found to be like that and not feeling quite with it.
    I like to shop at quiet times, rather than at peak periods.

      1. Yes they are. If I have to do peak hours, then I can tolerate Morrisons. I think this is because they have wide aisles.

        1. The store close to me is right beside a high school, and teenagers kind of annoy me in general, so I can’t go in there during lunch hour or right after school. I’ve become one of those grumpy old people who can’t stand teenagers.

    1. What a great description of the kind of everyday struggles some of us face. I’ve also had to adapt to different ways of handling groceries and relate to a lot of what you shared here.

  5. I definitely struggle with going to the grocery store, as well as even just taking my dog for a walk outside of my home. I tend to avoid people and I try to avoid any form of interaction. I have a lot of anxiety surrounding public places like restaurants and theaters. I used to have panic attacks in restaurants and theaters, but lately it has gotten a little bit better. I often go out of my way to avoid certain places and situations.
    I am constantly thinking about what could go wrong or possible scenarios that could happen wherever I go, but lately I’ve been trying really hard to find ways to cope and calm myself down.

    I just recently started reading your blog and I like a lot of the topics you discuss. Thank you for sharing part of your routine. Keep on keeping on!

  6. I can relate so well to this adventure of going to the supermarket. The only thing I don’t have in common with you is the walking distance.
    I have turned the food shopping into an Olympic event, meaning… Get in/Get out as quickly as humanly possible. Avoiding eye contact, and picking up exactly what I need because I have the aisle’s memorized. Unfortunately, we don’t have self-check out in my supermarket, which can delay the run quickly phase of shopping.
    At least they have that feature at the Walmart we go to. I didn’t use to mind going to Walmart that was down the hghway from me, but they shut that one down. All that is left is a Walmart in an awful spot of town. Every person in there makes me feel so uncomfortable, I end up with anxiety every single time we have to go there.
    I am happy in the confines of my room where no one exist accept for me and my laptop. 😊

  7. I can see why you avoid the pharmacy area, and it’s better to avoid triggers and discomfort where possible if there’s no reason to put yourself through it. I think you’ve covered this so well, and a trip to a grocery store may be so ‘mundane’ (not sure if that’s the right word, maybe), that they don’t consider mental health playing such a large role. I have issues with, well, I’m not sure how you’d class them but I’ll sound stupid trying to explain it I’m sure.. but obsessive overthinking about some things when I compare products, then the old ingrained calorie counting kicks in if it’s something different I’ve not bought before, so other things creep in to make a trip more exhausting than it otherwise would be. I’ve had panic attacks in stores before and that’s not pleasant, and nobody can figure out why you’re feeling detached or stressed or panicked because ‘it’s just grocery shopping’. It’s interesting to see how the experience varies from person to person where mental health is concerned so thank you for sharing yours so openly.xx

    1. I think grocery shopping is never just grocery shopping for a lot of us. I don’t get panic attacks, but i can imagine that would be horrible in a grocery store.

  8. I also don’t like interacting with cashiers. And memory–well, I chalk up my poor memory to ECT. I’ll be talking to my therapist or husband, and if the other person speaks, I’ll forget what it is I wanted to say. It’s really frustrating.

  9. Grocery shopping is one routine thing I do each week. Due to financial constraints now I limit my visit to once a week, and I try to make a week day rather than Saturday or Sunday. I like to go really early too to avoid the crowds and those idiot women who drag their 7.5 children with them. The kids are usually ill mannered and/or bored and are running around screeching and messing up displays and I privately want to run them down in my wheelie cart. They usually are smart enough to give me a wide berth though. I know my store well and the staff in it know me. I’m on chatting terms basis with four or five of the staff too and that doesn’t bother me too badly. Venues where my mental illness impacts things are any place where it’s crowded and I have to stand in long lines for something. I’ve eliminated this sort of activity from my life because I just don’t cope with it at all well. Public swimming pools are another area where I no longer force myself to go and participate. My social anxiety/phobia is too extreme.

  10. You described your routine well. At Walmart near where I live, no sales clerk ever offers help. When you finally find someone, the answer is always, “If you don’t see it on the shelves, we don’t have it.”

  11. Yeah, I avoid people too. I feel guilty that sometimes I hope that people I know won’t notice me when I’m out because I don’t feel able to talk. I have the whole depression-social anxiety-autism complex going on there. Although I’m really proud of myself for going to a social thing today and socialising with a ton of people I either hadn’t seen for years or knew online only.

  12. I wish I lived close enough to the store to walk! I’m not very social at all in stores either. I am big on the self checkout and I rarely speak to anyone else unless they speak to me first or I almost run into someone or something and apologize. Honestly, this isn’t all the mental illness though. I don’t remember myself ever being someone who would easily strike up conversations with strangers or even acquaintances.

  13. I am about grocery delivery at this point. There’s something comforting about having the same app where you right down what you need also just be your cart. I don’t really drive anymore, and it was liberating to just embrace online delivery, as much for mental health as physical.

    1. Also, wow my grammar was awful in that comment, even compared to normal. Ugh. I think that might mean my wonder if a migraine is coming on is about to be answered in the affirmative… :-/

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