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Shopping at Costco with a Brain Injury

How to survive the overstimulation of public mayhem

By Catherine KenwellPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Shopping at Costco with a Brain Injury
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I wrote this in early 2016, shortly after we moved to our current city. Since then, there have been some interesting developments. After reading about the introduction of ‘reduced stimulation’ store hours for people with autism (which also benefits people with brain injury, post-concussion syndrome and PTSD), I’ve reached out to local and chain retailers to request something similar. Ideas to reduce sensory stimulation include dimming the lighting, turning off the PA system and music, postponing cart collection, and providing extra guidance and assistance both on the floor and at cash.

Most Costco shoppers I know love the deals but hate the store; more precisely, they hate the Costco shopping experience itself—between securing a parking spot to navigating around daydreamers pushing carts, and from blocked aisles resulting from food samples to having to seek out the shortest of the gargantuan cash lineups (oh, and damn, forgot to bring bags and get boxes again!), it can stress out the most Zen individual. I get it.

Now, imagine going to Costco with a brain injury. It’s a huge warehouse with a kazillion aisles and bright lights; the din of shoppers and carts and kids screaming; the assault of colors, noises, textures, and smells.

“I stopped to look at the produce—at the big crates that contain the avocados, tomatoes and sweet peppers—and when I made my selection, I looked for you. I had my arms full of food and you were nowhere. Gone. The noise, the lights, the other people milling about—my head started swimming and I felt like I’d faint. I couldn’t even call your name. I fell against the avocado crates. I was catatonic.”

Many of my ongoing symptoms are cognitive and sensory related. I get anxious in crowds; I’m easily overwhelmed in large spaces, and I suffer from flooding, which is when the brain can’t separate and distinguish between stimuli so they all come flying in for processing at once.


My new city has a Costco. It’s exactly like the Costco we shopped at for the past 17 years. Yep, all the same stuff, pretty much. Except for the store layout…which is…Exactly. The. Opposite.

So not only am I dealing with flooding, sensory overload, and general confusion, I am completely discombobulated because the store is backwards! So my former ‘safe route’—‘if I get lost, I’ll go to the book section, find me there,’ is in itself a challenge because I can’t even begin to find the book section!

And decision making! If I’m having a bad day, forget asking me to decide between cereals or remember what kind of nuts are the ‘nuts’ written on the shopping list. Instead, I will stand and gaze at all of the nuts for a very long time, trying to access the information tucked away in my injured brain. And then I will walk away without picking up any of the nuts. Because I can’t decide.

Most Costco trips are any variety of just fine. But if I’m tired, or I’ve worked too much, or something else is going on to create brain fatigue, I can anticipate a bit of anxiety and confusion. I’ve learned to accept it, and I know that it will pass. If I can get in, shop, and get out, it’ll be fine. And yes, TBI folks, you’ll be fine too. Here are my tips for shopping at Costco (or any other retailer) with a brain injury:

1) If you can, shop in the evening, or even better, in the middle of a workday. The crowds will be smaller and the lineups will be shorter. And there aren’t as many distractions (like food samplers, etc.). Check to see if your local retailer or grocery store has designated ‘low stimulation’ hours.

2) Try to shop with a partner. Take someone with you. Having someone to shop with makes it easier for you to navigate the store, and simply having someone to walk and talk with can help relieve panic and anxiety.

3) Take a list. Get in and get out. Don’t wander around if you are tired or anxious. Go home. Try another day.

4) If you’re going to a mall, try to get there before the mall opens. Park close to an entrance, and take a picture of the section you’ve parked in. Should you forget where you’ve parked, you have a photo reference on your phone. Also, going early often means that store associates are available and ready to help. It’s much more difficult to get personal attention when the store is full of customers.

5) Have a plan. If you get separated from your shopping partner, you’ll feel more comfortable when you know there’s a predetermined meeting point and time.

6) Always carry your cell phone and ensure your shopping partner has his or her phone on. When I get disoriented in a big-box store, especially in Costco, or Home Depot, I call my husband. It reassures me that I’m not alone and that we’ll eventually find each other again.

7) Find a quiet place to stand. A quieter aisle, where you can lean against a rack or a shelf. Close your eyes and breathe. More specifically, try inhaling to a count of six, and exhale to a count of eight. No one's going to care or even notice that you're standing there breathing. But it's likely to help you an awful lot.

8) Try to balance your visit with some nature time. If you can, once you’ve unpacked the groceries—go for a walk or sit outside in the company of trees, grass, or heck, even snow. Clear your head. Again, inhale deeply, and exhale slowly. Nature will always give you a different, more peaceful perspective.


About the Creator

Catherine Kenwell

I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.

I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.

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