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Coronavirus: Why all the panic buying?

Psychologist says it’s comforting---within limits
Posted at 8:15 PM, Mar 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-12 23:15:10-04

TUCSON, Ariz. - There's been another sort of infection from coronavirus---an infectious sense of anxiety---that in some people can be leaning towards panic.

What drives us in that direction and what can we do to get a grip on ourselves?

We have seen people hoarding hand sanitizer and clutching bundles of toilet paper like a drowning man grabbing a life jacket. This virus is serious business but what is driving behavior that extreme?

A video from the Australian Broadcasting Company shows women in a brawl. They are fighting over toilet paper.

University of Arizona Psychology Professor Daniel Sullivan says those rolls mean more than a reliable way to, well, you know...

He says, collecting supplies is a way to feel like you've taken a least a little control in a situation that feels out of control.

“I think initially for many people it was these face masks right they sort of serve as this talisman. This fetish object right where you can wear these masks to get a sense of protection."

He says there can be a psychological benefit to collecting things that give you a sense of control but that drive can crank up your stress and distract from the bigger need to listen to the advice of health experts.

Sullivan says humans have evolved to be sensitive to the idea that something is contaminated---and we are triggered by the idea that something's getting scarce.

“And so there is a sense in which these things can spiral out of proportion because as soon as our attention is drawn to the fact that well everyone else is doing this thing getting this toilet paper. We have a kind of knee jerk reaction that I need to do this too.”

Doctor Sullivan says modern media---and social media deluge us with fast changing and sometimes bad information in ways they did not have to deal with in the Spanish Flu epidemic more than a hundred years ago.

Doctor Sullivan thinks another part of our stress connects with our national personality.

Americans are used to freedom---freedom of movement---freedom to associate and when something like Coronavirus threatens to take that away, it adds to the stress.