The Real Reason You Have Costco Anxiety, According To A Psychologist

While Costco is highly applauded for great deals, bulk purchases, and tasty samples, the experience can be overwhelming to many shoppers. In an interview with Mashed, Dr. Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist, health psychologist, nutrition expert, and author of "Why Diets Fail," shared some insights about the phenomenon of how the store so many of us love also produces significant levels of anxiety. One of the main contributors to anxiety is buying in bulk, which can upend a person's shopping plans. Dr. Avena explained, "Without preparation, it can be a lot easier to get anxious when deciding whether or not to purchase an item. You may have trouble figuring out how flexible your list really is, and what your backup plan should be if you don't buy certain things."

Dr. Avena cited the story of Lauren Wicks, who described the experience of handling all of the bulk items from a Costco haul. "There was no way I was going to be able to haul more than a few items at a time to my car ... I felt like everyone was laughing at me as they watched me try to fit (read: wrestle) a two-quart jar of soy sauce next to a three-liter tin of extra-virgin olive oil into my little canvas bag," Wicks said (via EatingWell). The availability and scale of Costco's products sometimes force shoppers to buy products in bulk that they might otherwise only need small quantities of. This can "ramp up nerves," according to Avena.

Costco's scale can cause anxiety

In addition to the large sizes of products, buyers may also get overwhelmed by the scale of the average Costco store. Dr. Avena noted that a typical Costco is gigantic, measuring about 146,000 feet. How does entering such a space play out psychologically? "If you're not prepared, you may find yourself overstimulated and overwhelmed before you even make it inside," said the psychologist. 

Avena continued, "Being in a crowd is now associated with the fear of getting seriously ill, no matter where the crowd is, or even if it's a small crowd. What's especially difficult is catching an illness isn't something you can see (and therefore control more or less)." Obviously, that makes it difficult to determine the level of exposure you're facing while around other customers. "If someone coughs or sneezes," Avena explained, "your anxiety may get even worse."

Even leaving the store may cause anxiety for some.

Verification is stressful

Have you ever accidentally set off the anti-theft alarms at a store? Usually caused by a cashier not properly demagnetizing or removing a security tag, most of us still feel guilty even though we haven't done anything wrong. Costco has shoppers have to show their receipts to a clerk before leaving and many shoppers may find this experience tedious or nerve-racking.

Dr. Avena explained the psychology behind this, too. "Understandably this can make someone uncomfortable because it's another interaction with someone you don't know at the end of a potentially very stressful shopping experience. Additionally, some people may have a habit of putting the receipt away in a purse or tucked in a bag after receiving it, since usually, you can walk out of the grocery store without anyone stopping you after you pay. If you do this, then you may also feel uncomfortable holding up the line while you try to find your receipt, and you also may feel anxious that the spotlight is on you."

So if shopping at Costco makes you nervous, there are good reasons to feel that way. Be ready for bulk buys, and have a "game plan" for how you will use large amounts of food or place a limit on the item size you will buy, advised Avena. If the Costco item exceeds that threshold, you can what you're looking for at a grocery store with normal-sized items. Preparation can make a big difference.