Why you're tempted to panic buy in lockdown two – and how to resist the urge

Why you're tempted to panic buy in lockdown two – and how to resist the urge

November 6, 2020

On every logical level, we know that panic buying and stockpiling – whether it’s packs of pasta or toilet roll – is a bad idea.

There is plenty of stuff to go around. It’s not coronavirus and lockdown that causes shortages, but our own actions – when people start to panic buy, shelves start to look empty, then we feel like we need to panic buy. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that can be so easily stopped by only buying what we need.

As we say, we know this on a logical level.

But when emotions get involved, things aren’t so simple.

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And in the second national lockdown, you might find that the temptation to panic buy is more intense than the first time.

This might be down to our experience in the first lockdown.

Perhaps back in March you were one of those responsible, sensible people who didn’t stockpile… but then you encountered long lines and empty shelves in supermarkets.

That may have been a frustrating and difficult experience. You might have struggled to get hold of your usual food items, or had to go to multiple shops just to find some loo roll.

Humans tend to hold on to bad memories more strongly than positive ones, so it makes sense that rather than remembering how we got creative with lockdown dinners, we’re focusing on the challenges of getting hold of what we need – and it’s not surprising that this would colour our experience of shopping this time around.

If we think of the first lockdown as bad because we didn’t stockpile, of course we’ll think that the way to make the second one better is to, well, stockpile.

Even if you know that there’s no need for stockpiling, the anxiety around a second lockdown can drown out all logic.

‘Going into another lockdown is anxiety-provoking for many of us,’ says Dr Nick Earley, head of psychology at Helix Resilience. ‘When our anxiety is high, it can trigger our internal threat system, the “fight-or-flight response”, which is emotionally driven and can overpower our brain’s frontal lobes, the areas responsible for higher-level brain functioning such as planning, organisation, self-control, judgement and problem-solving.’

‘There is a difference between disaster preparation and panic buying. In the case of a flood or a storm, we know pretty much how long it will last and what we will need.

‘With Covid-19, however, there is much more uncertainty; we don’t know long a lockdown will last, or whether supply lines or access to shops might be restricted, which can fuel our anxiety more and increase the likelihood of panic buying.

‘When we’re experiencing anxiety our internal threat system becomes activated which means we’re more driven by emotions and less so by rational thinking.’

You might also feel that while you have enough stuff to get you through the next month, your loved ones might not. This can lead to what feels like altruistic stockpiling, as we’ll do whatever we can to soothe our worries about people we care about – even though we know that buying them loads of canned goods won’t completely protect them from the risk of coronavirus.

Counselling Directory member Philip Karahassan explains: ‘Many have to consider not only their lives but the lives of vulnerable loved ones. So, they start to buy for themselves and also for others so that they feel they are doing their utmost to stay safe.’

Then there’s the need that’s deeper than having enough tins of chopped tomatoes to get through the next few months: the need for some sense of control in very unstable times.

‘People are at the mercy of not only the virus, but also the government restrictions,’ says Philip. ‘Some may feel that by stockpiling certain items they are able to maintain a certain level of control, which leads to feeling safer during this time.’

There’s also the underlying desire to fit in with the crowd and follow other people’s lead.

Philip explains that if you see other people stockpiling, you’re likely to follow suit, not just out of a desire for community, but because with so much confusion around what’s going on, you might think ‘they must know something that I don’t’.

Psychologist Becky Spelman, the clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic, says that when we see empty shelves – either in real life or online – we might copy the behaviour of stockpiling ‘because we think we need to be doing what other people are doing’.

On the flip side, there’s the ‘every person for themselves’ mentality. Perhaps in the first lockdown you didn’t stockpile, but got screwed over by those who did. It’s tempting in this scenario to then stop caring about other people, who you now think of as selfish stockpilers, by bulk buying before they can do the same.

But of course, this attitude only serves to create the exact problem you’re trying to avoid. If everyone panic buys and stockpiles, shelves will empty, more frenzy will be whipped up, and then people will feel they need to buy in bulk – and on the cycle goes.

So how do you resist the overwhelming urge to buy as much as you can when you go to the supermarket?

Philip advises making a list of what you need and sticking to it.

‘Reconsider what you actually need in your home as opposed to what you feel like others are doing,’ he says. ‘Lockdown aside, making a list and reminding yourself to keep as normal a home as possible should help to keep you grounded and avoid feeling the panic to bulk buy.’

Nick agrees with the power of writing a list, explaining that planning out your meals for the week can help you feel more in control in the face of the overwhelming stress of coronavirus.

‘If you find yourself in a store stocking up on random items or whatever products come to mind, you’re probably being driven by your emotional mind,’ he notes. ‘If you’re taking time to think about what you need and spending time writing a list and planning, there might still be a little bit of anxiety but you’re more in control and being led by your rational mind.

‘Ideally, we should all be finding the right balance between rationality and emotion. We call this the wise mind and this influences more balanced decision-making.’

Before you even head to the shops, spend some time working on calming yourself down and easing feels of anxiety through grounding techniques and breathing excercises.

Nick advises asking ourselves ‘what we’re so panicked about’ and fact-checking our worries.

He says: ‘Are we over-estimating how bad things will be if we don’t stockpile? Are we underestimating our ability to cope if we don’t stockpile?

‘Anxiety can cause extreme thoughts, so it’s important to question those thoughts rather than treating them as facts and acting on them. Then we can approach these situations with clarity and balanced decision-making.’

Remind yourself that you did get through the last lockdown, and that while it may have been tricky to find certain items, shops did stay open and there was no shortage of food.

‘Stockpiling and panic buying is a completely irrational behaviour that makes no sense at all, because there is enough to go around and we don’t need to store stuff in our house,’ says Becky. ‘If people just buy what they need, there will be enough items in the shops.

‘The message for everyone is to just stay calm, only buy what you need, and don’t stock up, because if we encourage people not to stockpile, then there won’t be any shortages of anything.’

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