The Psychology Behind Panic-Buying – And How To Avoid It

People are stockpiling – or "panic-buying" – toilet paper, pasta, canned goods, hand sanitizer and soap. Why, and what impact is it having?

Toilet paper, pasta, canned goods, soap – these are just some of the items swiftly disappearing from supermarket shelves in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

Video footage shared over the weekend showed U.K. shoppers in a branch of Costco filling their already overflowing carts with multi-packs of toilet paper. And now, supermarkets are having to take action.

Tesco, for example, is imposing a maximum purchase limit (five per customer) on items including antibacterial products, dried pasta and milk. Meanwhile, Boots and LloydsPharmacy have had to limit the sale of hand sanitizer.

Let’s call it what it is: panic-buying. And while it’s an understandable reaction to an uncertain situation, it is impacting people’s lives and could have a profound impact on supply chains.

One mom said she was struggling to access medicine for her disabled child’s pain management, and there are also fears the hysteria will impact the most vulnerable members of society: people on low incomes, retirees, and those with disabilities or chronic illnesses. So why is it happening?

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Anxiety about coronavirus is totally normal and the impulse to stockpile may seem a reasonable reaction to the situation. But it’s important to know panic-buying makes a bad situation worse. Not just because stocks run low and other people can’t access the goods they need, but for anyone stockpiling themselves.

Psychotherapist Nick Blackburn said people are trying to “solve” their anxiety by buying supplies, but when they get to the shops, they are likely to experience more anxiety because items are running low.

Then there’s the added anxiety of being criticized or hearing snarky comments by others for doing it – in the supermarket or all over social media. “That’s not the way to make fearful people feel better,” Blackburn points out.

Anxiety may be fueling the stockpiling, but Hansa Pankhania, a therapist of 25 years and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes it’s also driven by helplessness, fear and loss of control.

When people panic-buy it’s a “gesture”, she explained ― they’re doing something to help themselves in an otherwise helpless situation. When we have no control over the bigger picture, we crave control in our “micro world,” our home and daily routines. And in this case, people are doing it by buying up supplies.

There’s also the fear element, understandable when some people have died from Covid-19, although only a small number in the U.K. On top of that, people are scared of running out of food or supplies, says Pankhania, so there’s the basic survival instinct of: “If I don’t have food, I’ll die.”

“The news is saturated with people dying or feeling ill,” she says. “Listening to that kind of news, day in day out, is going to trigger our survival instinct even more. Generally human beings aren’t very good at dealing with uncertainty, this is their way of having some certainty.”

Can panic-buying, or stockpiling, ever be the sensible approach? Ratula Chakraborty, a professor of business management at the University of East Anglia, told HuffPost UK that stocking up on supplies is probably wise for elderly people or families with members who have underlying health conditions.

“However, what we have noticed in this country is that people are... just taking whatever they can lay their hands on – that’s not a very sensible reaction at all,” she said. “In the process, they’re making other people anxious that they won’t find their stuff, so it leads to a domino effect.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said retailers are currently facing a rise in demand for certain products that is “unprecedented outside of the Christmas period.” This has largely been limited to hygiene and longer shelf-life food products so far.

The BRC is now working with the government to find ways to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the supermarket sector. It has given the government a list of regulations – such as extending drivers’ hours and giving flexibility on delivery times to stores – that would ease pressure in the supply chain.

If panic-buying isn’t the answer, what is?

We need to cope with the outbreak with other strategies, suggested Blackburn. The first is very simply too inform yourself with good quality information you can trust. Try the World Health Organization.

Secondly, try to limit your exposure to group anxiety. “People talking about how worried they are is not information or news,” he said. It’s likely to fuel your own anxiety even more. That said, it’s important to stay connected with friends or family members to share how you feel and check they are okay, too. “A lot of people just want to talk about the fact they’re frightened and that will lessen [the anxiety],” he added.

Lastly, do actually plan ahead. “I suppose if you’ve planned the panic-buying then it isn’t panic-buying,” said Blackburn. “It might not be possible to plan as far ahead as we might like to, but try to focus on what’s practical to get now.” Having a plan already lessens the anxiety, he suggested.

“If you’ve planned the panic-buying then it isn’t panic-buying.”

- Psychotherapist Nick Blackburn

Buy stuff, by all means, but do so sensibly. The latest advice is that people may have to self-isolate for a couple of weeks if they’re at risk of contracting Covid-19. The common sense approach is that they’d need about two to three weeks’ worth of supplies in the house. That’s a big pack (or two) of toilet paper, a few canned goods, and maybe a pack of pasta and rice. If you run out, you could get an online shop delivered or get takeaway.

Those with underlying health conditions might be required to stay indoors a little longer. If this is the case, make sure family members and friends can be on hand to provide regular deliveries if needed. Speak to a friend or family member to set up a form of rota system, so you know you’ve got supplies coming each week.

“You’re not buying for a whole six months, you’re making sure your stocks are there for two or three weeks,” said Chakraborty. “Just lead as normal a life as possible.”

We each have a social responsibility to look out for others, too. Hoarding soap and toilet paper isn’t the answer. “People need to be sensible in terms of what they need,” she added.

This piece originally appeared on HuffPost UK.

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