How to fight the urge to stockpile, according to psychologists

Toilet paper was one of the first things to clear off the shelves during the first lockdown in March (Getty)
Toilet paper was one of the first things to clear off the shelves during the first lockdown in March (Getty)

As we digest the news of Christmas being cancelled for many in London and the South East, it seems we haven’t fully taken on board the lessons learnt from the first (and second) lockdown.

In March, when the UK went into its first lockdown, shelves were cleared of essentials like toilet paper, pasta and canned goods - even baking ingredients were few and far between as the nation used the time spent at home to finesse its banana bread recipes.

The message, even then, was clear: we have enough resources and we don’t need to stockpile.

This time, as other nations close their borders to UK travellers as an attempt to stop the spread of a new strain of coronavirus, we’ve been warned that there may be shortages for some fruits and vegetable.

Yet, most supermarkets have made it clear we won’t be running out of essentials any time soon.

Tesco said in a statement: “There is plenty of food and customers should shop as normal.

'We've been building our stock-holding of key products ahead of the Christmas peak and are working closely with our hauliers and suppliers to continue the supply of goods into our stores.

"There may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week."

Why, then, are we hearing reports of shelves beginning to clear once again?

“The word ‘lockdown’ gives people the strong sensation that the world is shutting down in front of them, which leads to feelings of anxiety, fear and panic,” Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) tells Yahoo UK.

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“The uncertainty in the world, and the anxiety and fear, leads to the belief that people might not have enough of the essentials; that things will run out and they might not be able to survive. Then they feel they need to have more than enough as a reassurance that they can continue to live. Stockpiling is a survival strategy that happens instinctively in these anxious, uncertain times.”

Nippoda says it is normal to feel anxious during this time - but we need to remember we survived the first lockdown.

“The difference between the first lockdown and this one is winter. People tend to feel more vulnerable in winter,” Nippoda continues.

She adds that Christmas is a factor in the sudden return to stockpiling too, as the uncertainty surrounding the festive season could be making people plan (and shop) more in advance.

Noel Bell, psychotherapist and fellow spokesperson for the UKCP, adds that stockpiling is a form of shielding behaviour, and the fears that arise from behaviours like this can lead to a loss of sense and rationality.

Bell adds: “We know we may have successfully got through a similar period, even in the recent past, but once fear has been activated at such a subtle level we can catastrophize that this time it will be worse.”

How can we fight the urge to stockpile?

The urge to stockpile is natural, especially when you see pictures of people clearing out shelves plastered across social media, but that doesn’t mean we should follow the herd.

“People first need to understand what happens before they stockpile. Some may, for example, stockpile after reading about the Coronavirus or after speaking with a relative,” says Peter Klein, psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member.

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“After people know their reasons for stockpiling they can, through increased awareness, practice stockpiling less whilst accepting that the urge to buy more items is present. The less people then act on that urge, the weaker the urge to stockpile will get.”

Bell’s top 4 tips for resisting the urge to stockpile

  1. Restrict your media intake

    “Watching negative news on a rolling basis can activate and heighten our survival instinct. We are not very good at dealing with uncertainty. When we are reminded about our own mortality, with so many tales of illness and death, we can become more impulsive and this can result in overspending.”

  2. Practice gratitude for what you have

    “Even during a pandemic we have many things we can be grateful for. Gratitude shifts our thinking onto a positive plane. We are less likely to be motivated by fear.”

  3. Limit time spent with pessimistic people

    “This does not mean isolating from your social support structure. It means limiting your exposure to group anxiety associated with people who always seem to focus on the negative.”

  4. Ignore what others are doing

    “When we see a queue outside a shop we may worry that there may indeed be real shortages. This theory of social proof may be a reason why we’re likely to follow the behaviours of others, in the same way that we once went into restaurants that looked busy rather than ones that looked empty.”

How can we encourage others not to stockpile?

While we may resist the urge to stockpile ourselves, there are ways that we can encourage family members, friends and neighbours to resist stockpiling too.

“Community spirit will help us to encourage each other not to stockpile. In the first lockdown we experienced many volunteers working together. For example, many people volunteered to do shopping for elderly people or people with underlying health conditions. They also took food and drinks to food banks or cooked and supplied meals for key workers,” Nippoda says.

This photo taken on March 7 this year shows shelves cleared on painkillers (Getty)
This photo taken on March 7 this year shows shelves cleared of painkillers (Getty)

Klein adds that the simple act of not stockpiling ourselves will encourage others to resist too.

“Understanding that stockpiling is what makes shortages more likely is very important,” he says. “The more people stockpile, the more other people will want to join in because of a fear of missing out on items.”

Is there a need to stockpile?

In short: no. Supermarket bosses have made it clear that we have more than enough supplies to get us through and people should go about their shopping as normal.

In September, Tesco CEO Dave Lewis said that panic buying is “unnecessary” and that it “creates tension to the supply chain”. Aldi UK’s chief executive Giles Hurley also penned an open letter urging customers to “shop considerably”.

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Andrew Opie, director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said in a statement: "Retailers have done an excellent job in ensuring customers have access to food, medicines and necessities throughout this pandemic.

"There is more than enough food and other essentials for everyone to get what they need and we urge consumers to be considerate of others and shop as they normally would.”

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