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Why We Panic Buy and What We Should Do Instead

How mass panic buying does more harm than good in times of crisis.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
Source: Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

In London last week, a 56-year-old man was mugged for his toilet paper. In Canada, a couple has been buying thousands of dollars worth of antibacterial wipes from Costco to resell them for four times the price on Amazon. They earned about $100,000 in this venture before Amazon removed their account. (They aren't alone in operating these exploitive business ventures either.) And photos of empty supermarket shelves continue to permeate across the news and social media, only seeming to perpetuate the panic-buying frenzy.

COVID-19 (coronavirus) is not only making us sick; it's also threatening our civility and common sense. Yet as irrational as it may seem, to some degree, panic buying in times of crisis makes sense. "When so much is out of one's control, there is a tendency to try to control what we can," says Harry Brandt, M.D., who leads the Dept. of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. And, for many, storing hundreds of rolls of toilet paper in their basement is one way to wield a modicum of control.

On a practical level, stocking up on specific items to limit trips outside makes "reasonable sense," he contends. It can be "life-saving" in certain situations. After all, hoarding stems from our evolutionary need to feel prepared and safe in case of hardship. Animals act on these same instincts each winter. However, on the flip side, irrational buying can also lead to "unnecessary hoarding, overspending, and… a decrease in necessary resources for others"—which are the exact behaviors unraveling society right now.

Is Panic Buying Necessary Right Now?

At the moment, the answer is a resounding no in the U.K, where I live. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently reassured the public that the country's "supply chains are working, and will work," and said there was no reason to "stockpile or panic-buy." In the U.S., industry experts are echoing this sentiment.

The nation's biggest retailers, dairy farmers, and meat producers say their food supply chains remain "intact" and have been "ramping up to meet the unprecedented stockpiling brought on by the coronavirus pandemic," according to The New York Times.

In other words, it's business as usual in the food industry. Goods are still being produced and stored in warehouses. "Our stores are getting stocked every day," says Ron Vachris, Costco's chief operating officer. "Transportation is functioning, our suppliers are working around the clock, and the flow of goods is strong."

Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol is equally optimistic. "As of right now, the supply chain remains strong. It remains healthy," he says.

Avocado lovers, in particular, can feel at ease. With cruise ships docked and demand halted, there is now a surplus of the popular fruit, according to David McInerney, the chief executive of FreshDirect, an online food grocer.

Certainly, if the number of illnesses drastically increases, then a reduction in food production and distribution can happen, but industries have already begun "to make contingency plans in case large number of workers... are incapacitated by the virus or roads are shut down as part of the effort to control the pandemic," according to The New York Times.

For example, some companies are working with local governments to ensure they can still make deliveries during quarantines.

What Should You Do Instead?

Rather than filling your shelves with products you may never use, consider trying the following strategies to help you stay rational and alleviate your fears instead:

  • Stick to the Facts: The best way to mitigate panic is to only pay attention to "facts and information that professionals provide," advises GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor. You may also want to avoid or limit how much news and social media you consume, she says, as it can make people misinformed and result in "more panic than comfort."
  • Create a (Healthy) Routine: In times of uncertainty, what people crave most is certainty. That's why therapist Marisa Peer says setting up a daily routine can help reassure us that these difficult periods will pass: "Follow a routine every day where you get up, shower and dress, and then immediately do something good." For example, you can juice, prepare nutritious food, exercise, connect with friends, or try something new you've always wanted to do. Don't just lie on the sofa all day, watching TV and eating junk food.
  • Keep Your Grocery Store Trips Short: If you can help it, avoid the grocery store altogether, but if not, don't linger there longer than you have to, says Dr. Michael Beach, a psychology professor who also teaches a free disaster preparedness course on Coursera. Just purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and other items to keep in your fridge or freezer. To minimize trips to the store, keep some staples in your pantry, but "use those things up and then go to the store and add to it."
  • Employ the Emotional Freedom Technique: Also known as tapping, the emotional freedom technique (EFT) is based on Chinese medicine principles that use meridian points (or energy hot spots) to help restore your body's energy. By tapping your fingertips on these pressure points, you can relieve stress or reduce negative emotions, helping you restore your energy balance. Learn more about getting started with EFT tapping here. In addition to tapping, psychotherapist Eliza Kingsford recommends practicing mindfulness, meditation, and breathwork—all techniques which can calm the nervous system and help us "make clear decisions [and] maintain our mental and physical wellness."

Following this advice can be easier said than done. After all, it's not unusual for people to copy what others are doing in times of crisis, including falling victim to mass hysteria. But psychologist Kim Chronister emphasizes the importance of being as rational as possible while also being prepared. Otherwise, you risk exacerbating the situation, since "excessive panic buying only leads to more obsessive worry thoughts and compulsive behaviors," she says.

Stay safe out there.

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