It does not seem normal, this surge of animal fear I feel buzzing around my ears as I push a cart down the beverage aisle of my grocery store. I spot a couple with a young child approaching me. They aren’t wearing masks, and the little girl is weaving about, arm outstretched. I freeze, then whip the buggy around and retreat, searching for open space.

The 30 minutes or so that I will spend here — darting around, Frogger-like, trying to avoid fellow shoppers, turning my head if I have to pass one, careful not to touch anything I don’t need to — will be riddled with such moments. I leave exhausted, a little shaky and feeling like there’s something wrong with me.

The coronavirus pandemic has dialed up anxiety all over the country, and it’s no wonder, given all that we’re facing: lost paychecks, the struggles of home-schooling, sick friends. Grocery stores — those rarest of public spaces that even the most scrupulously social-distancing people still have to enter if they can’t get a delivery slot — have turned into epicenters of fear and uncertainty. My experience, mental-health experts say, is common.

“Things go awry when multiple problems converge at once,” says Stephanie Preston, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “At the grocery store, first off, you’re anxious about being able to get the supplies you want. And then the idea of fighting over resources is extremely aversive, so you have internal conflict, and that’s anxiety-producing in turn.”

That’s a lot on its own. Under all these compounding factors pinging across our lizard brains is a near-crippling fear that has turned what used to be a mundane errand into a veritable visit to the Thunderdome: “What you’re really scared of is that you’re thinking, ‘What if I make one little mistake and I get sick or I get someone else sick?’ ” says therapist Jennie Steinberg, who owns Through the Woods Therapy Center in Los Angeles.


A masked shopper walks by signs on the floor with social distancing instructions in a D.C. grocery store. (Daniel Slim/Agence France-Presse)

Some people have mental-health or other disorders that already made shopping difficult, even in pre-pandemic times. Agoraphobes have trouble leaving the house, obsessive-compulsive disorders can create fears of germs, and some people simply feel panicky among crowds. But experts say the pandemic has created circumstances that can lead to stress and anxiety for anyone simply trying to fill their pantry.

For many people, the experience of procuring food involves layers and layers of stress. Even the precautions that many grocery stores and chains are taking, while they might make workers and customers safer, can be a source of worry. Various stores are managing their sanitation and distancing measures differently, some requiring masks, many putting up plastic shields, marking out safe social distances for line-standers or creating one-way aisles.

Wal-Mart has a different way of dealing with this than Trader Joe’s,” says Phil Lempert, the editor of SupermarketGuru.com, an industry publication. “There’s no uniformity between grocery chains, and that can make people worry if it’s enough.” He also notes growing reports of sick grocery store workers may stoke fears. 

Of course, people can avoid this scenario entirely using online shopping. Services like Instacart and FreshDirect have seen business spike in recent weeks. Even if you can afford such a luxury, you might not be able to snag a delivery window, with some platforms mired in weeks-long delays. And many people still worry about the safety of goods delivered to their homes, given the virus’s ability to linger on surfaces.

Grocery stores were already prime territory for choice overload, and the pandemic has only multiplied the dilemmas, big and small, that we must navigate under the fluorescent lights. Steinberg cited a study by Cornell University that found the average person already makes about 200 decisions about food every day, mostly “micro” ones. “In a grocery store, you are inundated with choices, which can absolutely be stressful,” she said. “People can get totally paralyzed when facing 35 brands of ketchup.” 


A grocery store worker takes produce inventory at a Mom’s Organic Market in Washington. (Alex Edelman/Agence France-Presse)

With new risks involved, the decisions about when to shop, what to buy and how much to stock up on are more fraught. And with shortages at many stores, even if you arrived with a list tailored to the meals you planned to make, you might have to revise all of that on the fly — meaning you’re making dozens more decisions.

“For all people have been told about food supply chains being okay, they’re still walking in and not being able to buy toilet paper, and that’s scary,” Lempert said. 

The reason behind many of those ravaged shelves? Yes, anxiety is both cause and effect. The average person might think of hoarding as a disorder that afflicts those people we see on reality TV. While that is a real pathology, Preston says we’re all susceptible in the moment to the urge to buy too much, particularly now that fellow shoppers might seem like our competitors rather than neighbors. In fact, she calls overbuying a “normal adaptive” response. “The average person is just responding in a rational way to uncertainty,” she said.

Even the smallest of interactions among the aisles involves stressful choices: Do I chance walking down an aisle where there are other shoppers? How far back should I stand?

Today’s grocery-shopping experience is riddled with conflict and competition, too, experts note. Before customers even set foot in the store, they might be angered by security guards barring people without masks from entering, Lempert notes, or they might be agitated by the long lines set up to prevent more people from entering than the store can safely handle.

There’s plenty of a stress-producing phenomenon that psychologists call “social comparison” going on among the aisles.  We’re judging our fellow shoppers: Are they wearing masks? Are they keeping the proper distance? We worry about how we are being perceived, too.

Lempert said a friend told him her husband was yelled at by a fellow patron for walking the wrong way down a one-way aisle; he had missed the signage. “We’re creating more panic,” he says.

I tell Steinberg about the rage I felt while watching a fellow shopper show photos on his phone to a friend he happened upon in the dairy aisle. “These people are monsters!” I told her.

She explained that I probably wasn’t just angry about these people who I thought were being so reckless. Anger and disdain are secondary emotions that surge to the forefront to protect you from your primary ones of fear and worry, she explained. “Those are really big, sticky feelings to stand there and feel,” she said. “You are protecting yourself from feeling really hard things at a really hard time.”

Even if you manage somehow to walk through the doors with a modicum of Zen, the feeling might not last long. It turns out that stress hormones, just like the dreaded virus, are contagious. “The hormone cortisol can be directly caught from another person,” said Preston, who has studied ways in which people perceive and “catch” emotions from one another. “Imagine a person giving a speech who is really nervous — that makes people in the audience nervous, too.” 


An employee disinfects a shopping cart at a Fareway grocery store in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg News)

All of this might sound daunting, but there are strategies for coping.

We’ve all heard the advice that we should be kinder to ourselves these days, and that’s easier, Steinberg said, if you understand what’s happening to you. In other words, you’re not weak, just alive — and flooded with stress hormones. “If you are a zebra on the Serengeti and you’re flooded with cortisol, you have to run,” Steinberg said. Instead, we just have to keep pushing our carts and internalizing our fears. 

She suggests taking slow breaths to “trick” our brains into calming down. Under stress, our breath can become quick and shallow, she noted, and just mimicking normal (i.e., deeper and slower) breathing patterns can help boost your calm.

Preston advises shoppers to remain patient, even as they try to speed up their errands. One of the most effective ways of reducing anxiety on a grocery mission, she said, is to remember something we (hopefully) learned a long time ago: Be nice to others.

People’s behaviors — going the wrong way down an aisle, say, or lunging into your six feet of social distance — are probably caused by their own fears and stress, she said. “That’s worth being empathetic about, rather than getting upset,” she said. “Focusing on another person and actively reducing self-consciousness allows you to focus on something other than your own internal state.”

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