The psychology behind panic-buying (and how to stop it)

The coronavirus has many stockpiling – or "panic-buying" – household items such as toilet rolls, tinned goods and any and every form of antiseptic handwash, but what does it mean and is there a way to curb it? 

Video footage all across social media shows empty shelves, trolleys upon trolleys of loo roll and face masks for €150. On Irish shores, restrictions in terms of exactly how much can be bought per customer seem slow to be introduced. In the UK, however, Tesco is imposing a maximum purchase limit (five per customer) on items including anti-bacterial products, dried pasta and UHT milk.

Related: Coronavirus Diaries: The 28-year-old graphic designer from Dublin who's living in self-isolation

Let's call it what it is: panicking. With a virus, now a pandemic, that Ireland has never seen the likes of, we fear running out of everyday essentials, and uncertain times mean we want to be prepared. However, this urge to stockpile is impacting people’s lives.


Because what of those who are more vulnerable? The chronically ill, elderly, those with disabilities, or those on low-income wages will be at a serious disadvantage. Experts have said we should just be buying what we need each week – though they have emphasised those with health conditions and the elderly should stockpile – that's not happening for many. We can see a "take all" mentality emerge (at least if the viral videos are anything to go by).

In short, we're trying to do something to help ourselves when we feel helpless.

Solving anxiety?

You might think you are easing anxiety by buying in bulk, but really, you're just making it worse. Research says, if you lose the sense of perceived control (such as the spread of coronavirus), you start buying things to help you solve the problems that caused you to lose control in the first place. In short, we're trying to do something to help ourselves when we feel helpless.

Related: Irish consumers outraged as shops use Covid-19 as 'business opportunity'

But as psychotherapist Nick Blackburn told The Huffington Post, people are trying to “solve” their anxiety by buying supplies, but when they get to the shops, they are likely to experience more anxiety because items are running low.


How to quell panic-buying

Be practical. We need to cope with the outbreak with other strategies. Follow official advice on the HSE website. Stay informed, know the symptoms, wash your hands, work from home if you can but be practical; endlessly watching repeated news cycles 24/7 on the virus won't help – it will just fuel your worries. Ditto those COVID-19 WhatsApp groups.

Have a plan. We don't mean stick your head in the sand either; it's a fine line. But you can plan ahead. You can buy some items now, foreseeing that you might be indoors a lot more than you normally would for a couple of weeks at least.

Common sense is key. Self-isolation will happen for 14 days if you think you have the virus, so here, the common sense approach is that you'd need about two to three weeks’ worth of supplies in the house – not six months' worth. That’s a big pack (or two) of toilet roll, a few tins, and maybe a pack or two of pasta and rice with your other usual items.  You can get home deliveries too.

We need to be sensible and know that hoarding all the hand sanitizer we can get our hands on isn't the answer – and it's unfair to everyone else too.


Main photograph: Unsplash

Read more: Italy lockdown: what you can and can't do when your country is restricted by coronavirus

Read more: Why it's so hard to stop touching your face (and how you can)

Read more: Coronavirus: Will I still get paid if I’m forced to self-isolate?

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