How the mindfulness of grocery shopping helps me survive burnout
April is Stress Awareness Month. On HelloGiggles, we are talking about the routines, habits, and activities that unexpectedly keep us calm and grounded in a society where harmful, high levels of stress are dangerously normalized.
Automatic doors slide apart when I approach, like Moses and the red sea. As I embark on my grocery journey, I am hit with the odd yet not entirely unpleasant scent of produce, roasted chicken, and fresh bread.
Like a lot of millennials, I’m burnt out. Work is stressful, money is stressful, relationships are stressful, and the news cycle is, obviously, stressful. I have a near-constant pain in my neck from anxiety and hunching over a computer. I’ve tried it all: baths with candles, massages, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation to name a few. However, it seems that the activities that make me the calmest are the ones where I’ve felt productive.
That’s why I’ve recognized grocery shopping as a form of self-care.
I find grocery shopping to be almost therapeutic when all of the elements go well. A positive shopping trip begins with a plan. Going in without an agenda will only end in stressful laps around the store and regretful choices that cannot be assembled into a meal, but curating a shopping list with a meal in mind creates a sense of accomplishment when it’s all over.
My shopping days start like most days, and most days I start fantasizing about dinner before I’ve had lunch. First, I put together a list of the items that I want to pick up from the store. I peruse my favorite blogs for recipes, looking for a dish that will do three things: satisfy my craving, use some ingredients that I already have at home, and contain a nutrient I feel like I am lacking.
Today, I’ve noticed that I need more fiber (I’ll spare you the details on my reasoning), so I settle on vegetable chili. The recipe includes black beans, kidney beans, quinoa, and corn—all of which I have at home. It’s a budget-friendly recipe that can easily be reheated for lunches and dinners all week. This helps me feel fiscally responsible and healthy: the holy grail of “I have my shit together.”
On a hot pink post-it note, I scribble a list of the remaining ingredients I need to pick up, plus coffee, creamer, and “a sweet treat.” I like leaving the exact treat open-ended so I can select one in the moment; it keeps things spicy.
I live in New York City, so transporting my loot home is more complicated than carting it out to my car and loading it into my trunk. Getting the items home requires a bit of a walk and, depending on the chosen store, a subway ride. I have to think about the number of items I select: If I go at rush hour, I cannot buy too much or else I won’t be able to fit my body in the train next to the hundreds of other bodies. If I don’t get all the items, I’ll have to come back again tomorrow. I’m being mindful during the selection process…this is mindfulness, right?
For me, finding joy in grocery shopping is entirely a perk of being single. If I had to shop and cook while considering others’ dietary preferences, much of the enjoyment would likely be zapped and replaced with stress. I get to be entirely selfish—avoiding foods I hate (beets are an abomination) while bending to the whims of my cravings.
It wasn’t so long ago that grocery shopping was more than a burden; it was an anxiety-filled nightmare that I rushed because it was required if I wanted to eat. In my early twenties, I slipped into the worst depression of my life. I had been let go of the job that brought me to New York. My career had been the tightrope I balanced on in a city of strangers. When that tightrope snapped, it sent me into a free fall. Most days were spent in bed, drinking cup after cup of coffee and anxiously applying to every job that I was remotely qualified for.
The only thing that forced me from my cocoon of sadness was hunger.
“How’s your appetite?” doctors often ask of a depressed patient while scanning for symptoms. I never had a lack of appetite because eating made me feel something. I loved to eat.
Back then, my diet could be described as high-fat, high-carb, low-nutrient. I lived on wheat bread and peanut butter because it was cheap and filling, and frozen pizza because it was easy. I bought the cheapest coffee but splurged on the creamer with vanilla flavoring to cover up the taste. In those days, I would calculate the time of my shopping trip precisely: in the late morning when kids and adults are at school or work, or, more preferably, after dark when most people were in for the night. The fewer people that have to look at me, the less likely I’d be identified as a depressed person. That seemed logical in my depressed mind.
Even though it was not as pleasant an experience in those days, grocery shopping was frequently the only thing that got me out of the house. I always felt better for having done it.
In the years since learning to manage my mental health, my grocery list has grown up and so has my shopping experience.
When I am feeling burned out, or depressed, or anxious, a trip to the grocery store accomplishes a number of things.
It gives me the time to consider my health and listen to my body while creating space to focus on nothing but the task at hand. I find myself saying the next item on my list over and over in my head until I find it. When my brain repeats “tomato…tomato…tomato…” there is no room for negative self-talk.
Whether I’ve carefully crafted a shopping list for a nutritious recipe or I’ve shown up merely craving string cheese, I feel like I have accomplished something after a trip to the grocery store. Somewhere between the store and my home, the intrusive thoughts trying to convince me that I’m a lazy, unproductive, unsuccessful, unlovable person fade away, and the anticipation of red-skin mashed potatoes with Irish butter and fresh dill takes center stage.