How panic buying of toilet paper is the perfect analogy for anxiety

photo credit: Cape Breton Post

Australians have just witnessed some extraordinary scenes and images as supermarkets across the country run out of supply of toilet paper and other items, leading in some cases to physical altercations. No doubt when things settle down (and they will), those Australians who bulk purchased toilet paper will probably feel quite sheepish about their actions and wonder what took a hold of them. This quite illogical (in hindsight) behaviour, has helped me realise that how we've reacted as a nation, is a great example of how our brain works when we feel anxious.

To explain this, we need to discuss some of the processes of our brain, and I am indebted to Dr Russ Harris and his description of the brain (you can see his excellent video here). Firstly, we need to understand a core part of our brain known as the Limbic System. The Limbic System incorporates many parts of the brain, and it's ultimate role essentially is to protect us from danger, by sending off warning signals to our body.

In the case of the coronavirus, the limbic system part of our brain is receiving information from the media such as all the data on the amount of people infected, daily updates on mortality, images of people wearing masks, and everyone talking about the coronavirus. Our brain then determines we are in "danger" and fires off the alarm in our bodies which are the hormones that prepare us for "fight or flight" mode. So now we are faced with a sense of anxiety and discomfort about all the information we are seeing. This feeling is constantly reinforced by the way in which coronavirus is show on television, newspapers and the internet. It's shown in big bold letters, statistics on the outbreaks, such as the images below, and it instills a sense of panic.


As you can see above, all the information is in red, usually associated with danger and alarm. We have another process in our brain, and this one is called 'cognitive bias'. What that essentially means is that we look for information that confirms our beliefs, and we ignore contradictory information. Because of the unrelenting nature of the reporting of coronavirus in the media, we're feeling anxious, and we start looking for more information that confirms our belief (and feeling) that we should be worried. So we've got a feedback loop of looking for information that confirms we should be alarmed, and easily finding that information that we should be alarmed. All this happens unconsciously, and lightning quick.

Now we are alarmed, and we are being constantly reminded to be alarmed, and the limbic system part of our brain has triggered the fight or flight response, and we start to have worrying thoughts like "what will I do if I'm stuck in the house for 2 weeks". And when we feel anxious, we look to gain control or avoid situations that spark anxiety, so we start to think "If I'm quarantined for 2 weeks, I better stock up". Now we are seeing that toilet paper is running out - because they are big bulky items that we don't buy frequently, so the supplies run out quickly - we are even more panicked, because our plan to be in control is now out of control, so we buy more than we need "just in case" and also to stop our anxiety and fear of being out of control. And so on and so forth.

The part of the brain that we are missing in all of this, is our big prefrontal cortex, which acts like a "mission control" centre. Its job is to try and make sense of all this information pouring into our system, and make a more informed decision, and hopefully realise that the way we are responding is quite irrational. When things settle down, those people with 4 months worth of toilet paper will probably realise just how irrational they were acting.

We can change this coronavirus anxiety with anything that provokes anxiety and see the same response in our brains and our behaviours. For example, some people have a fear of vomiting. They become highly attuned to symptoms in their gut that might suggest they could vomit, such as nausea. In order to avoid vomiting, they start avoiding situations that cause nausea, such as going out in public, or foods that make their stomach unsettled, and their memory and cognitive bias reminds them of the time they vomited and how unpleasant it was, but ignores all the times they haven't been sick, or they felt nauseous and didn't vomit.

A quick tip for dealing with anxiety about the coronavirus

What we want to try and do is to engage the 'mission control' part of our brain, the part that can look at all the information and make a reasonable decision. To do that, we need to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings - "I am having worrying thoughts about being in quarantine" and also acknowledge that this anxiety is normal, given the high level of reporting in the media and the many unknowns of this virus. Once we have got some separation from our thoughts, we can then have more helpful thoughts - "I can take care of myself and reduce my risk through good hand hygiene".

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