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Why people are panic buying and what can help

Sara Freeland

March 23, 2020

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When the forecast predicts icy weather, many Southerners stockpile bread and milk. With COVID-19, stores around the nation are out of toilet paper and cleaning wipes.

It's a cultural phenomenon studied by Alan E. Stewart, weather and climate psychology professor at the University of Georgia's Mary Frances Early College of Education. He studies the effect severe weather has on mental health.

Here he shares his thoughts on the pandemic and accompanying behavior:

Alan Stewart

What is making people anxious about this event?

The unknown.

From an environmental psychology perspective, many contemporary cultures are accustomed to predicting and controlling nature for human purposes – the air, the lands and waters – and animals, even down to the microscopic levels. The coronavirus has challenged and, in some ways, inverted the human dominance of nature. This dynamic, along with the fact that virus is microscopic, that we do not yet fully know how to control it (or are just learning about predicting and controlling it) results in people fearing what they do not know.

Without knowledge of the virus, psychologically it is easy for people to ruminate and magnify their fears by imagining different possible scenarios.

Sometimes this lack of knowledge is augmented by inaccurate information or misinformation via the media or social media. This, too, can amplify peoples' fears and undermine their trust.

Is there a reason people hoard goods for these type of events?

If somehow a message is spread that a shortage may be coming, people may convey this information on social media and then this morphs via sharing and retweeting as a shortage. At first it was more apparent than real … but as people panic buy the shortage truly comes to exist more in actuality.

Psychologically, in our global economies, most of us really do not know the origin and history of our "stuff"—how it is made and where it comes from. Without this knowledge and with rumors of scarcity, people begin to buy and stock up out of fear of the unknown. Even with presumably rational reporting about a good, steady supply of most things people buy in the grocery store, people seem to fear running out, running short, or doing without.

Why is it not bread and milk this time?

I am not sure why there was a run on toilet paper—other than perhaps the spread of a rumor about a possible shortage via social media or something similar. The Clorox wipe purchases are more understandable as people seek to disinfect hard surfaces like handles or knobs on doors, counters, screens, and any other hard (non-porous) surface where the virus may survive.

What can you do if you're anxious?

Focus on what you can control
With schools and universities suspended and with other closings and recommendations to avoid large gatherings, people can be helped by focusing on what they can control themselves (other than buying out supplies) about their daily routines

Set a new daily routine
Given a new daily routine (at least for the foreseeable future), what parts of it can a person control and make into a routine? Experiment with different ways to "do the day" and find one that works and then try to adhere to it.

Don't over-consume news
Like in other big news events, control the amount and kind of news coverage of the coronavirus (and its effects) that are consumed. If constant updates about the virus, closures or the economy are stressful, then try to find an alternative activity that will take the mind off the news like reading, watching a fun video, or revisiting a comforting movie.

Spend time with soothing people and pets
Although big gatherings are to be avoided, spend time with those friends or family members who can both provide and receive soothing and comfort – virtually, if needed. Video chats are a great option. If there are deeply held fears about the outcomes (now or later) of the virus, share/"air" these concerns with trusted people so that they can be reassuring or can challenge fear-based beliefs. Spending time with pets also can be very soothing.

Spend time outdoors
Make an effort to go outside and have some contact with the natural environment – whether walking in the yard or sitting on a balcony (while practicing social distancing). The virus may have disrupted our daily school, work and social routines, but our natural surroundings remain the same – and this can be comforting. Seeing some peeks of sunshine on a mild day can be restorative – especially if it means leaving the television, computer or smartphone inside.