The Psychology of Panic Buying

Panic buying is currently big news, resulting in big queues.  Fears about fuel and food items shortages have resulted in shoppers stockpiling in a phenomenon that’s been labelled “panic buying”.  In this article we consider some of the psychological drivers at play with panic buying, how this relates to other forms of panic and anxiety and how we can remain calm and grounded in the face of panic buying news reports.   Throughout, this blog aims to take a non-judgmental approach to panic and panic-buying in order to make meaning of panic and panic-buying. 

What is Panic?

The word panic originated from the Greek panikos, which includes the name of the god Pan: noted for causing terror.  Greek myths frequently blame Pan for causing woodland noises that strike terror and anxiety into the heart of other woodland beings.  This origin of the word panic helps us to better understand something of what panic feels like:  panic can be defined as a sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety that can result in unthinking or reactive behaviour.  And, it is that sense of fear and anxiety and then a reactive behaviour of stocking up and stockpiling that is being termed “panic buying”.  If we were to distil panic buying into an equation, it would look something like this:

Reports of shortages + fear of future scarcity = reactive behaviour of stockpiling.

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Panic is not a new phenomenon.  Many people come to therapy to seek support after experiencing symptoms of anxiety and, with more severe forms of anxiety, panic attacks.  A panic attack can be extremely distressing and frightening and includes symptoms of:

Panic Attacks 

  • A racing heartbeat
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • feeling faint, dizzy or lightheaded.
  • feeling that you’re losing control.
  • sweating, trembling or shaking.
  • shortness of breath or breathing very quickly.
  • a tingling in your fingers or lips.
  • chest pain
  • hot flushes
  • chills
  • dry mouth
  • a need to go to the toilet
  • ringing in your ears
  • a feeling of dread
  • a churning stomach
Panic Attacks can be extremely distressing and debilitating

What do Panic Attacks and Panic Buying Have in Common?

Whilst panic buying at the forecourts and in supermarkets may not mirror the typical symptoms of a full-blown panic attack, similar psychological processes are behind panic buying and a panic attack.  Both are essentially a mental, emotional, physical and behavioural response to fear.  Both are about perceived loss of control and anticipatory fears about what might happen.  Panic attacks can be triggered by particular situations and scenarios and the beliefs and expectations a person has about that situation.  Panic buying is, ultimately, fuelled by an anticipatory fear of scarcity:  that we will be left without food, without fuel and struggling to get by.  Such fear prompts a responsive action to stockpile or hoard. This is something we feel we do have control over, and helps – in the short term- to reduce feelings of anxiety and panic associated with fears of scarcity.  However, in the long term, panic buying behaviour can disrupt the supply chain and lead to issues with supplies in stores.  Even when we are told rationally to simply shop as we usually would, there is some inner drive that can override this advice, leading us to stockpile.

Panic Buying and the Role of Perceived Scarcity

Research shows that the perception of scarcity is strongly linked with the panic buying behaviour.  We fear running out, not having enough, going without.  That is a real and understandable fear.  As an infant, we cried when we were hungry.  Even at that young age, we were driven by a survival instinct that equates food with survival.   News reports and overheard conversations about empty shelves, therefore, fuels our perceptions of scarcity and is likely to increase panic buying.   Our brain moves into the territory of survival.  The feeling of insecurity that arises when we fear we will not have enough food or fuel activates the desire to respond and react by stockpiling.   Buying fuel and food sooths our personal anxiety around scarcity in the short term.  We can consider stockpiling and panic buying as a form of safety seeking behaviour. 

The Limbic Brain and Panic

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With any form of panic or extreme anxiety, our limbic brain – that is, our emotional and reactive brain that is responsible for keeping us safe from danger, begins to work overtime.  The pre-frontal cortex part of our brain that makes rational decisions and weighs evidence before responding is less likely to be functioning and collaborating with the limbic system.  Dan Siegal, clinical professor of psychiatry, calls this “flipping your lid”.  Therefore, if we find ourselves stockpiling as a reactive behaviour, rather than a calmly thought out and reasoned response to a challenging situation, it is likely that we are acting out of panic and without the full use of our pre-frontal cortex.  Just as with a panic attack, grounding exercises and self-regulation support can help us to calm any sense of panic and allow our limbic brain and our pre-frontal cortex to work together and make rational decisions rather than reactive and impulsive actions. 

Grounding Ourselves to Help Manage Panic

Feeling calm and grounded allows us to be more capable of making calm, rational decisions that respond (rather than react) to challenge

Grounding exercises and self-regulation support are an important tool for managing anxiety and panic – and these will be considered more in a future blog.  However, anything that helps to calm our nervous system can be considered a form of self-regulation and grounding.  For some people, this takes the form of meditation.  For others, calm and mindful breathing.  For others, sensory awareness.  The key here to all of these techniques or exercises is that they allow some sense of control or feeling of mastery over our own responses and our reactions.   They can be very helpful for managing emerging feelings and sensations indicating a panic attack.  They are also useful tools to consider when we feel disturbed, anxious or ill-at-ease about panic buying reports. 

Herd Instinct and Co-Regulation:  The Impact of Others Upon Our Sense of Panic. 

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

One final consideration that is relevant to the psychology of panic buying is that humans are social beings.  We cannot help but be influenced by the reactions and behaviours of others.   This has been labelled the “herd instinct”.  We often find that we look to others as a means of comparison and to gauge our own responses.  As social creatures, our brains and emotional states are impacted by that of others in a phenomenon called “co-regulation”.  My state of emotional and psychological regulation can be impacted by that of another.  In this way, panic can be contagious.  Seeing news reports and also speaking with others who are feeling panicky as a result of perceived scarcity can result in us also feeling a sense of anxiety and panic. 

So – panic buying, like other forms of panic and anxiety is essentially a fear-based response that emerges from a perception of danger or risk.  Panic buying, like other forms of panic and anxiety, can be a reaction resuting from our limbic systems response to perceived danger.  News reports and being with others who are experiencing panic can also fuel our own feelings of panic.  Grounding and self-regulation that helps us to allow our limbic system and our pre-frontal cortex to work in an integrated and unified way is one way to help respond to panic.  Grounding exercises – explored more in a future blog – are ways in which we can regain some sense of control in a world that sometimes feels out of control.

This blog has aimed to unpack something of the psychology of panic-buying in a non-judgemental way.  It has aimed to make meaning of panic and anxiety and the feelings of being out of control.  For many people, therapy offers a space to explore in a non-judgemental context, what panic, anxiety and feeling out of control is like for them – with the ultimate goal of making meaning of their experiences.  If you feel you’d like to find out more how therapy can help with panic and anxiety, please do get in touch for a free initial phone consultation. 

Therapy can help you to make meaning of your own experiences of panic, fear and anxiety.

References:

Arafat, S., Kar, S. K., Marthoenis, M., Sharma, P., Hoque Apu, E., & Kabir, R. (2020). Psychological underpinning of panic buying during pandemic (COVID-19). Psychiatry research, 289, 113061. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113061

Wilkens J. The San Diego Union-Tribune; 2020. Why We Hoard: Fear at Root of Panic-Buying, Psychologists Say.https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/health/story/2020-03-22/hoard-fear-panic-buying-psychology

Published by Claire Law

Qualified Preston-based Counsellor and Psychotherapist offering space for you to find freedom from what holds you back.

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