Coronavirus fears have emptied supermarket shelves. Are you panic-buying?

Stocking up because of the coronavirus? Panic-buying can ease anxiety, but the effects are typically short-lived. Here's a better way to cope.
Image: Fears Of Coronavirus Spreading Causes Shortages Of Supplies At California Stores
Shelves for disinfectant wipes are nearly empty this week at a Target in Novato, California.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

If the mobs crowding local grocery stores this weekend for everything from cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer to pasta, rice and bottled water are any indication, a lot of us are in the throes of coronavirus panic.

“Panic-buying happens when people worry about the scarcity of supplies,” says Steven Taylor, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, who specializes in the psychology of pandemics. “Some people rush to supermarkets and so forth in the hope of getting ahead of the crowd. But in reality, those people are simple panic-buyers who happen to arrive early.”

The problem with panic-buying is that it breeds more panic-buying. “If you see other people stocking their shopping carts in an anxious frenzy, then that can increase the fear or anxiety in other shoppers, leading people to worry about the scarcity of food, medicines or hygienic supplies,” says Taylor. “The combination of fear, urgency and perceived scarcity can lead to things like people fighting over hand sanitizer in the supermarket aisles. This creates a sense of urgency and leads people to over-buy, that is buying more supplies than they really need, just to be on the safe side. This can create real shortages because people buy more than they need. So, the fear of scarcity can create real scarcities.”

Stocking up can be a coping mechanism

Paul Slovic, professor of psychology and president of Decision Research at the University of Oregon, says stocking up on pantry items and other essentials is a way of coping with the uncertainty of COVID-19 and all it will bring. “Control is a very important psychological factor in keeping us calm, if we feel like we can somehow protect ourselves in various ways,” Slovic says. “Buying hand sanitizer is something, we're told, that can help us protect ourselves. Washing our hands and using sanitizer is one of the few things that we're being told that we can do to give us a sense of control over our risk, so it's not surprising then that people are going big time to do this. They don't have many other options.”

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Panic-buying can ease anxiety, but the effects are typically short-lived, says Taylor. “People who tend to be panic-buyers are likely to worry about other things, like getting infected while traveling the subway or bus,” he says.

Washing our hands and using sanitizer is one of the few things that we're being told that we can do to give us a sense of control over our risk, so it's not surprising then that people are going big time to do this. They don't have many other options.

Paul Slovic

It's normal to worry

In this instance, a little worry is normal. After all, we’re dealing with an illness that is unprecedented. “To be frank, the information that we're getting from the media is worrisome,” Slovic says. “Unfortunately, most of the information we're getting is not firsthand contact with the disease, it's secondhand via various media sources, whether it's mainstream media or social media. The dimensions of it are uncertain as opposed to the flu, where we've seen it so many times we sort of know what the boundaries are. We don't have such experiences with the coronavirus.”

And there’s nothing more fearsome than the great unknown. “The uncertainty about how bad things could get, the effects of the news media and social media, with dramatic images of people wearing masks and images of empty shelves on grocery stores, and the fact that fear itself is contagious; fear spreads when people behave in a frightened way,” Taylor explains.

Are you worrying too much?

“If you experience constant worry about COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms such as insomnia or irritability, they could be signs that [worries about] the coronavirus has gotten to you,” Taylor says. “Also, if friends or family members tell you that you seem unusually worried, that could be another sign that you’re excessively worried about the virus.”

Yet, there’s no baseline of what level of concern is appropriate for something like this, Slovic says. “If one is overreacting, that implies that you know exactly what the right reaction is, that you're exceeding in some way, or you have a baseline standard for what is the right reaction,” Slovic says. “I don't think that's very clear at this point.”

How to cope with fears about the coronavirus

So, other than wash our hands, what can we do to keep panic at bay?

  • Stay tuned to the authorities. Trusted health authorities like the WHO (World Health Organization), or the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) are providing constant coronavirus updates. Both experts recommend following their protocols closely (like frequent hand-washing and covering coughs).
  • Keep calm and carry on. “Some degree of concern or anxiety is reasonable, but try to carry on with your everyday life as much as you can,” Taylor says. “Use all of the stress management strategies that you would normally use. If you go to the gym or exercise classes, for example, continue to do so. There is no reason for healthy people in the community to be wearing facemasks.”
  • Try not to “catch” fear. Taylor says fear is just as contagious as COVID-19 — if not more so. “You have a responsibility to your loved ones, friends and the rest of the community to deal with the current outbreak in a sensible, reasoned manner,” he says. “Try to lead by example.”
  • Don’t lose perspective. Remember — what you see on TV or on the news is just a microcosm of the whole picture. “Remind yourself that the graphic images on the media or the rumors on social media can exaggerate the perceived threat,” Taylor said, adding that, in a matter of time, it’s more than likely that the threat of COVID-19, too, shall pass, and your life will return to normal.

NEXT: Get up-to-date information on the coronavirus live blog

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