The psychology behind panic shopping

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic demand on groceries has reached an unprecedented level. Supermarkets are imposing rationing, the likes of which have not been seen since the world wars. The hoarding of groceries has been met in the press and on social media with shame and criticism, rather than compassion and empathy. 

But people are scared. They are worried that if they can’t leave their houses, their family will go hungry. They are worried that to leave their house might place a death sentence on them or their loved ones.

Why do we stockpile?

Stockpiling groceries can be seen in a similar way to pregnant women ‘nesting’ or animals storing food for winter. From an evolutionary point of view, stocking up on necessities makes perfect sense when people are under threat. This brings a sense of predictability and control at times when things are chaotic and unpredictable. Humans are innately drawn to predictability. When you’re terrified about whether your family will survive, focusing on the groceries allows you to control something.

Fear driven behaviour

While being prepared at times of uncertainty makes evolutionary sense, there is a line between sensible preparation and unconstrained panic buying. Being prepared is a response of the left hemisphere of the brain which has the capacity to think, plan and communicate.

In contrast, when we panic buy we are emotionally flooded and functioning with our right hemisphere. When we are emotionally flooded, the parts of our brain responsible for logic and rational thinking shut off and our stress hormones trigger a ‘fight-flight’ response. When we see one packet of toilet paper left, the emotional parts of our brain go into overdrive. We no longer see the packet of toilet paper, we see something that will help ensure our family’s survival.

If someone gets in the way of us getting that packet, our brain overestimates the level of threat and in some people causes a ‘fight’ response. We aren’t thinking rationally, we just act to ensure the survival of our family. The difficulty is that what might be in the best interests of our family is not necessarily in the best interests of the wider community.

So how can we help ourselves and each other at this time?

– Work to reduce our anxiety and panic. Less anxiety means we are better equipped to make wise decisions. Now might be an ideal time to try some mindfulness-based practice or yoga. You might like to go for a walk or anything else that you find soothing.

– Limit your family’s exposure to the news media and be selective about which media you choose to consume.

– Connect with your neighbours, friends and family as much as is safe. Solidarity and connection are protective at times of stress.

– Try to stop using shame and criticism. People are just doing the best they can.
If we stick together, we can make this much easier on ourselves and our community.

Written by Sarah Hollingworth, Clinical Psychologist

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