Beyond panic buying

Page last reviewed: 28 April 2020

Right now, the coronavirus situation can feel as though we are standing in a long, dark tunnel. This is stressful and scary. Once we can see the end, it will immediately feel much more manageable and we will be more optimistic.

But how do we respond in times that feel desperate? One common response is “panic buying”.

I’m not here to lecture you on what is necessary for your household. Nor am I suggesting that panic buying is selfish or nasty. Rather, it’s mostly the result of powerful psychological urges, and is a normal response to our distress.

But resisting this urge of buying beyond what is usually necessary is also important, for reasons I’ll come to.

First though, let’s understand why we feel the urge to fill our baskets and trolleys with pasta, toilet roll, tinned veg and the like

Why do we panic buy?

1) The coronavirus situation feels completely out of our control and many people will feel that it is taking away the control they have over their own lives.

This can feel frightening and unbearable. Panic buying may make us feel we have regained some sense of control. It’s as though a part of us feels: “I can't control the pandemic, but I can control how much stuff I have at home.”

2) We may feel that in the face of such a dramatic situation, we have to take dramatic action ourselves if we’re to cope.

Washing our hands and staying at home may not feel dramatic enough, on their own. Hence, again, we may shop in dramatic ways, spending and buying far more than normal.

3) We humans sometimes have a herd mentality, with everyone feeling pressure to do what other people are doing.

If you’ve ever watched a flock of sheep, you’ll know how when one sets off, the others follow as though they were invisibly tied together. So, now, with our shopping.

4) Loss aversion – or our general tendency, as humans, to care more about avoiding losses than we do about acquiring equivalent gains.

At the shops, this translates to something like: “It’s better to buy extra loo roll in case I need it, rather than run out in future.”

Put these four forces together and it’s clear that there are powerful psychological urges pushing us to hoard certain things – forces that are causing many of us to panic buy.

But as governments take increasingly tough action in response to the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly important for us all to remember our fellow humans, who all need the same things we do.

Thus, to resist this normal urge to, we can follow some tips and tricks

How to resist panic buying

1) If we’re tempted to join in panic buying, we can try limiting ourselves to one extra item per shop per person.

This could even be done as a family, where the main shopper can have a list of one extra item from each family member. Eventually, we might stop doing it altogether.

2) if we’re feeling highly stressed already, it may be best to postpone shopping until later.

Practising some relaxation techniques or breathing exercises before going out may also help to avoid shopping while at our highest stress levels.

3) We should try asking ourselves, not “how am I going to survive?” but “how can we get through this together?”.

Asking some of these questions of our ourselves, as we stare at the supermarket shelves, will help us overcome our urges to panic buy, and instead embrace the bigger “us” that is essential in times like this.

The wide spread of the novel coronavirus means that many of our fellow citizens who are vulnerable – as well as healthcare workers – will still have to go to supermarkets and grocery stores, to ensure they have the basics.

Ensuring we help to leave enough to go around for everyone will also mean that we are active in protecting our collective wellbeing.

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Public Health England have developed explicit guidance on mental health in the crisis. If you want to develop a personalised plan for supporting your mental health you can also visit the PHE Every Mind Matters site, developed in collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation.

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