Yes! Adults can be Over-Responsive to Sound in the Grocery Store

Before I learned I was an adult with Sensory Processing Disorder, specifically hypersensitivity (or sensory defensiveness) I had no idea how over-responsive I was to sound.

Screaming children weren’t the only thing I hated about the supermarket. All in all, food shopping topped my list of dreaded activities. I’d rather have my liver biopsied – at least they give you drugs for that.

“You spoiled brat,” The voice of reason interjected. “Do you realize the majority of the world would trade a kidney for unfettered access to abundant food?”

Yes, I realized that. And feeling bad about myself did not make grocery shopping one bit more tolerable.

You may notice, I refer to this affliction in the past tense. Just weeks ago I made a life-changing discovery regarding grocery shopping!

As far back as I can remember I hated shopping. I am sure I would have been a grocery store screamer as a child if screaming had been an option for me. I learned very early that my mother was the only one in our family allowed to scream. If you tried it, Janie would slap you silly. I dreaded trips to the store and endured the experience and its aftermath in miserable silence.

For many years I got out of grocery shopping by being my family’s majority bread winner. I got out of a lot of difficult things that way. But when I sold my business in 2009 to become a full-time writer, it seemed wise to free up Watson to earn enough money to support us. Grocery shopping was the worst of the regular chores I took over.

Within eighteen minutes of passing through the automatic glass doors of the grocery store, I would go from determined to stupefied. The exact progression was: determined, stoic, annoyed, desperately annoyed, angry, exhausted then, lastly – barely functional enough to check out.

Stupid is the only reliable indication that I am on the bad side of exhausted. When I am out in the world I’m geared to survive. I must get home and put the groceries away before I can collapse. It’s bad enough to be undone by something as mundane as grocery shopping. For it to be fruitless and thereby a waste of time would be unbearable.

So I traversed the parking lot and the roads home and put the groceries away in a state of barely functional stupidity.

Brakes squealing?

“My-bad.” I veered back into my lane.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary about the life of the hauntingly soulful singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. His son said they never went to the grocery store. They bought all their food in short trips to the neighborhood convenience store. A kindred spirit, Townes, unfortunately he drank himself to death in his early fifties.

But I was determined to master the I’m-too-sensitive-to-shop defect in my character. Even after I learned about Sensory Processing Disorder, I felt sure that this was something I could be good at if I just threw myself at it with enough force.

I am adept at efficiency, systemization and routine. My life as a sensory defensive would be wholly unmanageable without these skills. I used them all when I laid out the gold standard for grocery shopping – in two parts:

Part A

  1. plan a menu for the weekcheck supplies needed against supplies in stock
  2. make a list
  3. drive to the store

Part B

  1. make menu adjustments based on product availability
  2. make decisions comparing value and price
  3. drive the groceries home
  4. put the groceries away
  5. eat the cupcake bought for a treat (anything done well deserves a reward)

For a year I gave the gold standard my best shot. But once inside the store my ability to make a menu adjustment or choose between two products was the mental equivalent of juggling bowling balls.

I managed to fill my cart with all the items on my list by organizing that list on a spread sheet divided into columns by isle number. If I missed the item before I got to the next isle, screw it. We’d get by without it this week.

I loaded the groceries in the car and ate the cupcake (Part B5) in numb exhaustion before I pulled out of my parking space.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not keep myself from eating the cupcake as soon as I got in the car. So I altered my plan and purchased two cupcakes, one for the parking lot and one for home after I put away the groceries.

Unfortunately, that resulted in eating both cupcakes in the parking lot. I continued to adjust this portion of the plan until I was eating four cupcakes.

When I got home, I did my very best to put the frozen items in the freezer, the perishables in the refrigerator and everything else in the pantry. Then I fell into bed for the two to three hours it took my central nervous system to recover.

A couple of times I immerged from my post-shopping brain fog to discover the ground beef churning out e-coli on a dark shelf inside the pantry.

After a year I admitted defeat. I lowered my standards.

I developed the hit-it-on-the-fly-and-get-the-hell-out-before-you-crash method of grocery shopping.

  1. Write a short list of what you absolutely cannot live without. (Never more than fifteen items. Ten is better – no guilt in the express check-out)
  2. Jump in car, zoom to store, push cart from aisle to aisle, ignore any impulse to avert attention
  3. Shove your way through the 10 items or less express line, dash back to the car
  4. Drive home
  5. Cram both bags in the refrigerator
  6. Crash for eighteen to thirty-five minutes.

Efficient, effective, only problem with this method – I had to do it three to four times a week.

So…. now to the good part.

I was at HEB. I had thrust myself into the produce department. They didn’t have the small Cameo apples Watson likes to take in his lunch. I was breathing deeply, willing myself to relax while I tried to choose between fifteen inferior strains of apples.

“Long Cool Woman” blared from speakers,
mixed with the sound of a baby wailing,
metal carts clanging,
rubber wheels squeaking over tile,
all piercing the roar and chug of compressors attempting to cool an acre of produce.

My eyes scanned the wall of apples while I begged the goddess of commerce to “Shut the #@&*# music off!”

My hand, entirely of its own volition, reached into my bag. Looking for a gun, maybe?

It pulled out my soft foam ear plugs.

Hmmm… my higher consciousness considered this. I had just recently added ear plugs to my sensory defensive arsenal. Up to this point I had only used them to protect my brainstem from the radio and whiney children in my allergist’s waiting room.

I squeezed the plugs into tight tubes and inserted one in each ear.

The soft foam sounded like pop rocks for a couple of seconds as the plugs grew back to their pre-compressed state.

They slowly fill my ear canals, pushing sound out of my brain like a seawall rising against a frothy storm tide.

As the sound left my head the space around me expanded, stretched away in all directions.

“That’s impossible.”

I know. Space couldn’t actually expand. That would defy all sorts of physical laws.

But as my sensory relationship to the space changed, my perception altered so dramatically I experienced it as a visual change.

Sound muted, space grew and every muscle in my body relaxed.

“Wow.” I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.

“This must be what it feels like to get shot with a tranquilizer dart.”

I looked around me.

People glided silently through this expanded space. No longer right on top of me, no longer tangled in a jittery clutter of vibrating menace pressing from all sides.  They just pushed their carts, minding their own business.

I looked back at the apples.

Their bins made a beautiful mosaic of spheres: green, gold and red. I didn’t hate them like I did just ten seconds ago.

I read the product information, written in English now. My mind accessed information stored from a lifetime of eating apples. No Cameos? Galas would work.

I didn’t dawdle. No point pressing my luck.  I loaded the twelve items on my list into the cart. But I did it at a more relaxed pace, no longer zooming through the store like it was on fire. I even backtracked for the olives I overlooked on aisle 8.

Since this monumental discovery in the grocery store, I use my ear plugs in the craft store, hardware store, department store and mall. My sensory relationship with these places has dramatically improved.

Before earplugs I was revving my nervous system into the red every time I went into a big-box store. Now I coast.

If I pull out a plug to talk to someone, the sound blasts me. Before earplugs I wasn’t conscious of how loud it was, how hard my body and brain worked to get me through it.

I couldn’t make this association before I learned about SPD. I didn’t have the right information. Realizing I have an extreme sensitivity to sound is infinitely better for my self-image than believing I am too weird or neurotic to perform the basic function of shopping.

What’s difficult for you? Any tips to share? I’d love to hear from you, Reader. Comments make my day!

14 Replies to “Yes! Adults can be Over-Responsive to Sound in the Grocery Store”

  1. I hate shopping, too!
    If you live in an area where Safeway or another grocery store is a lifesaver. I stayed out of grocery stores for several years that way.

    Due to my husband’s new dietary needs I am having to go into the grocery store again. I pick the nicest grocery store in town since it is less crowded and has bigger aisles. I have found that Sunday evenings there are very few people (maybe 5) shopping.

    I will try your earplug idea. I wonder if an ipod would work?

    For me the sound is an issue, but I also feel like everyone is going to run into me with their carts.

    1. Hi Laurie, Thanks for commenting! We don’t have a grocery story that delivers around here, unfortunately. Ordering food on line and having it delivered would be perfect. I agree the store and the time of day make a big difference! I try to go in the morning on a weekday. Without the earplugs it feels like the other shopper’s carts are right on top of me. But with the earplugs everything and everyone backs off. I won’t go in the store now without them.

    2. Yes, the iPhone helps. But for me it just distracts my mind from how annoyed I am. With the earplugs my body actually relaxes. They are in my purse now all the time, along with my Chapstick and my gum. I never leave home without them :]

  2. I used to try using earplugs, and Ipods. What do you do when you can not tolerate things in your ears??? I really struggle with this, because only in the last 3-4 years did I become so sensitive to having plugs in my ears. Its heart breaking – I had success with it at my home, but still would not feel SAFE not being able to hear. (stemming from a whole lot of PTSD)From allergies and such – my ears itch, and drain(clear) almost daily – adding to me not being able to plug them.:(

    1. Stacey, I feel your pain! When a tried and true coping tool becomes unreliable I feel scared. I was just where you are recently. I am getting my allergies treated. I am taking lots of breaks during the day in my quiet room with a soft pillowcase over my eyes and two favorate pillows, one pressed against each ear. My mantra, ‘everything’s alright already.’ I say it to myself with all the love and kindness of a lulliby. When my nervous system has relaxed I am in a better place to reach out for help or to realize I can find additional tools. I am looking for a new pair of headphones: over the ear, soft, that don’t squeeze my head too uncomfortably and that I can afford! Really good ones are expensive. But I will find them. I trust that you will find what you need too :) Thanks for the comment. Please check out the Sensorina FB page too. We need to stay in contact with others who know what we’re going through <3

      1. Thank you for responding. I feel so alone, all of the time. You see so much on childrens stories of this, but not too much about the adults. Not to mention the fallout of growing up with this, in unsympathetic environments. (that would be a gross understatement in my upbringing). I am so overly frustrated in my daily life – and the SPD has intensified majorly in the last 3 years. I ended the quest of allergy help – I could write a book on that saga. I also ended the 15 year quest of numbing myself just 6 months ago, and I definitly do not like it. I have two sons, and the youngest has sensitivities too, but at least I understand him. A cycle broken. Thats gotta count for something. It is sometimes hard for me to believe that this is so rare. But then trying to find other adults has proven that – even on the world wide web. I am more than happy to share the many things I have gone through in my 42 years of life, to help others. While going through the site, I was amazed at the stories I relate to, so well. Currently – my marraige is in major jeopardy. I really wish I had some answers on how to make my SPD and the rest of life coincide. It nearly impossible because of the many, many circumstances. But, I am still in the game – hoping to find them.

  3. I relate so much to this… But for me it isn’t just the noise – I can’t stand fluro lights and cleaning product smells. I wish I could stand ear plugs because then the noise would be one less problem.

  4. How about Bose noise-cancelling headsets? I think there may be other brands too, but bose is famous for its noise cancelling headsets, they are marketed for people who travel on planes.

  5. I LOVED this article. I was laughing and crying at the same time as I identified with your experiences.You have inspired me to try some different things and not give up! Thanks!

  6. Yes, yes, yes!!! Instead of blowing up at store managers about how loud the music/audio ads are, I’m going to print out this article and hand it to them. (Hopefully before I get to meltdown stage.) Earplugs help me some, but the sound that does get through is still overwhelming in stores. Plus the fact that earplugs seem to magnify any sounds I make (like breathing, or especially if I talk).

  7. To the store I go very slowly and just don’t let anyone push me off my course. I will just find a not busy spot, pull my cart over in the corner and stop. I might pretend like I’m making a decision between two products and just turn my back to all the people. Deep slow breathing is the best thing anyone can do. Rushing just activates adrenalin and stress hormones and makes it worse. Never rush. Try slowing down. I don’t like things on my head, but a friend of mine wears a ball cap pulled down over her eyes and that helps her. You can also visualize a raincoat and everything just falls off of you it doesn’t get to you.

  8. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d
    most certainly donate to this outstanding blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

    I look forward to fresh updates and will share this website with my Facebook
    group. Chat soon!

  9. Oh my goodness. I feel like someone has finally written what it feels like to be me. I have felt like a complete outsider my entire life.
    I struggle with monumental fatigue and I think that it’s as a result of over processing everything.
    As I am new to this any tips on overcoming fatigue would be awesome. Xx

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.