It is not just about toilet paper

In recent times much attention has been directed towards the so-called ‘panic buying’ of staples, including toilet paper and other hygeine products.

The Prime Minister of Australia has told the population to “stop it”, by which he meant for people to stop buying and hoarding staples in anticipation of a lack of supply. He has told us that there is enough to go around, presumably if we all think and act rationally in relation to accessing staples.

The South Australian government has moved to deregulate shopping hours in an apparent gesture to reassure shoppers that they can access staples anytime.

The problem is that neither strategy addresses the fact that for too many people, when you walk into the shopping centre to buy staples, such as toilet paper, there is none there!

So-called ‘panic buying’ and hoarding of staples arises in the contexts of fear and (new) learning. As a fear response, it is not (entirely) rational, and appealing to people be rational is unlikely to have sufficient impact to address them problem. Shaming them, such as referring to the behaviour as ‘un-Australian’, is only likely to compound fear and distress, and exacerbate the problem. As a learning response, ‘panic buying’ arises in the context of (new) learning that you cannot always rely on being able to access what you need.

When access to needs provision is inconsistent a preoccupation arises. Regardless of their prior learning, people tend to engage in behaviours that increase their chances of their needs being met, such as through ‘panic buying’. This might be likened to a basic human instinct. Yes, we can override this instinct with reason, but it is hard to be reasonable when we are anxious.

Money is another staple, and providing access to money through ‘stimulus packages’ is a worthy endeavour, so long as everyone gets access to stimulus money. In the current climate, access to money is, conceivably, the next great preoccupation.

Whether it was meant or not, the model used in providing stimulus money is a potentially helpful methodology for addressing a preoccupation with accessibility to needs provision, and associated compulsive behaviour (i.e. ‘panic buying’) to reassure oneself about access. If governments in Australia and around the world want to temper so-called ‘panic-buying’ and associated fear and distress, they need to turn their minds to providing basic staples in a reliable manner.

Imagine, a stimulus package that delivers toilet paper to every household in Australia . . ..

A final thought. We know that people tend to ‘see’ that which is in their thoughts. This is referred to in the psychology literature as ‘selective attention bias’ or ‘inattentional blindness’. It can also be shown that without prompting to do otherwise people tend to focus on what is wrong rather than what is right. In evidence of this, take moment to look at the equations below and notice what stands out for you.

Our ‘natural tendency’ to notice what is wrong (4+4 does not equal 9) means that we tend to inflate the magnitude of problems in our own minds by overlooking that which is right. In the current coronavirus crisis, there is much in the news that is anxiety evoking (or is this my own selective attention bias at work?) and our tendency to selectively attend to that which is a problem can have the effect of magnifying our anxiety. If you contrast this with the news coverage of the recent bushfire emergency there was much attention given in the media to the heroism of the fire fighters and the endeavours by the community to support them. There was greater balance to the story. Though there was anxiety, people were also reassured that brave people were putting their lives on the line to tackle a great threat to lives and livelihood.

There are many clever people trying to develop a vaccine and other treatments for the coronavirus (COVID 19). It would help if we knew more about what they are doing. The media have a powerful role to play, as do the government. In doing so, there may be progress towards more than one cure.

In the meantime, try to maintain as many routines as you can. Keep track of doing so. In uncertain times, tuning into the predictable elements of life can be an effective buffer against anxiety.

A straightforward guide to keeping things on track in the home during tough times. Includes printable worksheets – see preview below. 18pp

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Or, download here.

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About colbypearce

I am a Clinical Psychologist and author who assists children and familes overcome adversity and experience strong and secure attachment relationships.
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