The Coronavirus has shaped human behavior in numerous ways. The uncertainty of the pandemic’s course, orders to shelter in place, and feelings of fear, anxiety and helplessness have resulted in purchasing supplies and food to excess, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Although not formally defined, hoarding behaviors or over-purchasing is commonly understood as purchasing objects, supplies, or other items to the point that their accumulation outstrips their need. For example, it is estimated that an average American only needs 100 rolls of toilet paper a year, yet a phenomenon that has occurred across the U.S. is bulk purchases of toilet paper, resulting in empty shelves and rationing by businesses. As cases continue to rise and more cities enact restrictions, suppliers are still struggling to meet demand.
Hoarding behaviors seen during the Coronavirus pandemic are not to be confused with hoarding disorder, which is a mental health condition characterized by accumulating things which may or may not hold value such as newspapers, books, clothing, and even animals. Additionally, it differs from compulsive buying or shopping disorder, which often co-occurs with hoarding disorder and is characterized by, as the name suggests, excessive buying (Norberg et al., 2019). Hoarding behaviors are a common human reaction following mass events such as natural disasters and other large-scale events; for example, in 1973, low supplies of gas and electricity drove Americans to hoard toilet paper for over a month.
Although hoarding during the pandemic doesn’t mean you have hoarding or compulsive buying disorders, they all appear to be driven in part by anxiety and a way to cope with uncertainty and overwhelming circumstances (livescience, xx; Norberg et al., 2019). Hence as the pandemic ebbs, most people will not continue to engage in hoarding behaviors. Until then, how can you manage feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and fear without stockpiling toilet paper?
- Recognize that your behavior is likely driven by fear and anxiety, and give yourself permission to feel these emotions. Give yourself permission to feel distress and understand your hoarding behavior is connected to a range of emotions that are very real and may be scary. Acknowledging your emotions can help understand what is driving your actions, and is key to ultimately changing your behavior.
- Wait before purchasing. It can be tempting to buy toilet paper or other supplies as soon as you see them on the shelf, but by waiting 20 minutes, you allow your brain to catch up to your impulse. You can even give the product to a store clerk to hold for you while you continue shopping, to offset the feeling that you will lose out if you don’t purchase it immediately. This also works virtually; save the item to your cart and walk away from the computer or continue with your other purchases while “holding” your item.
- Get a support buddy. Form a team with a supportive family member or friend, and keep each other accountable. Identify “trigger” items like toilet paper, paper towels, and goods (e.g., soup, beans); before purchasing, check in with your buddy and similarly hold your buddy accountable when they want to make a trigger purchase.
- Reach out and establish support networks. Form your supportive network to share your feelings and concerns about Coronavirus. Family and friends can be important sources of support and encouragement.
- Shop with a list. Shopping with a list, and sticking to the list, can help reduce excessive purchases.
- Engage in healthy behaviors and self-care. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. Take care of your body and your mind.
- Engage in activities to decrease stress and emotional distress, such as exercise regularly, practice meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation strategies.
And above all, be easy on yourself. Although hoarding behaviors may be upsetting, know that you are doing your best to manage in this uncertain time.
If you find you are continuing to struggle on an ongoing basis, feel stuck or have symptoms of distress, a qualified mental health professional can be a great source of support and help you on the road to re-entry.