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How To Go Shopping With A Vestibular Disorder

Do the bright lights and bustling aisles of the grocery store make you feel even more dizzy, disoriented or off-balance? You’re not alone.

Many people struggling with a vestibular disorder tend to find noisy, visual stimulating environments like grocery stores, malls or marketplaces cause sudden spikes in their symptoms, along with the added bonus of anxiety and panic attacks.

Why does this happen?

Vestibular disorders require retraining of the two main components of the inner ear: the Vestibular-Ocular Reflex (how your eyes process information to your balance system and brain) and Otolith Orientation (the small crystals in your ear that help you figure out where you are in space).

Remember, this is a bilateral system — the brain needs to be able to identify accurate signals from the inner ear in order to properly process them! If your struggling with balance to begin with, being in a market literally scrambles your system.

Vestibular triggers are all over the store: strong patterns on the floor, fluorescent lights, meandering people, mood music, overhead announcements, fragrances and food smells, and vibrant packaging and placement along long aisles designed to catch — and distract — your eye.

Talk about sensory overload. Picking up a gallon of milk can provoke not only physical stress, but can trigger the anxiety and depression so commonly associated with vestibular disorders.

So how can you cope?

Acute or severe phase: Surrender to your body’s needs and ask for someone else’s help in these early days. Your doctor may prescribe short-term medicines for temporary symptom relief. If it’s miserable, unbearable or overwhelming, start here:

  • Delivery to your door — from Amazon to Publix, order your necessities online (along with all that high-quality, brain-boosting food)

  • Short spurts, small stores — if you must go in, put one thing on your shopping list, and get it from a smaller store like a local pharmacy or gas station where it’s quieter

  • Dedicate yourself to those daily vestibular rehabilitation exercises — success builds success, and over time you’ll be back in the big box stores

Early recovery phase: If you’re making strides, but shopping is still a struggle, it’s time to tap into your inner vestibular warrior:

  • Plan an exit strategy — make a short list of items, visualize where they are in the store, and make a plan for how to get in and out most efficiently

  • Take the scooter for a spin — many supermarkets have mobile carts that make shopping significantly and minimizes stress to the system

  • Go full-on rock star — sunglasses will cut the glare of the fluorescent lights and prevent your eyes from scanning overload, and a little white noise on your own headphones will cut the auditory overload, too

Moderate recovery phase: The adage is the more you do, the more you can do. In this phase, your resilience is getting stronger, so:

  • Linger for longer — challenge yourself slowly with a longer list and pop through more aisles

  • Make one trip a day — even if you don’t buy anything, just being in these highly sensory environments is in itself a vestibular rehabilitation exercise

  • Feel frustrated? Fantastic! — you might have days where you feel completely fine in a store, and others where you feel majorly set back; know this is a normal progression of the rehabilitation and a signal that your system reset is actually working!

Understanding what is happening to your vestibular system can calm emotional stress and empower you to make a plan to forge ahead with your life. That’s what the WUZI method is all about — giving you the knowledge, power and action steps to heal, cope and hope!

With daily practice and proper pacing, you will gradually manage more or your daily activities, including trips, big and small, to the store.

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