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Stockpiling toilet paper, food gives people a feeling of control in a situation that’s out of their control, mental health experts say
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Stockpiling toilet paper, food gives people a feeling of control in a situation that’s out of their control, mental health experts say

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A woman wearing a protective face mask walks Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Catalonia on March 13, 2020. The Spanish government declared a state of alarm. The measure will allow the authorities to limit the movement of citizens and to ration the use of services in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Jordi Boixareu/ZUMA Wire/TNS)

Shoppers flocking to stores to stock up on toilet paper, frozen entrees and other items may strike some as an overreaction to the coronavirus, but for others it’s a means of exerting control in a situation that is basically out of their control, mental health experts say.

Jon Mueller, professor of psychology at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., said three powerful forces at work when something like this happens — fear, uncertainty and scarcity — and all are normal human responses. “All this makes sense in the context,” he said.

It’s not unlike when the Home Shopping Network gives an alert that only 12 items are left in the sale, Mueller said. The television show is tapping into those same forces in an effort to get the viewer to react.

“We want to do things to gain control,” he said.

In this case, it is stockpiling supplies.

Customers at Casey’s Foods in Naperville are scooping up frozen entrees, water and toilet paper, items people would need if they needed to self-quarantine, store manager Kevin Killelea said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends having a two-week supply of water and food. In addition, the government suggests Americans check their regular prescription drugs to ensure a continuous supply and to have nonprescription drugs and other health supplies on hand, such as pain relievers, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes, and vitamins.

At stores where there has been high demand for paper products, cold and flu medication, and household cleaning essentials, stores like Jewel Osco, Mariano’s and Meijer have had to place limits on how many items a customer can purchase at one time.

Melissa Steen stopped at the Costco store in Naperville late Wednesday morning for a rotisserie chicken, eggs and veggie straw snacks after returning from an out-of-town trip.

She walked out with far more than that, including toilet paper, peanut butter and cereal, after getting caught up in the buying frenzy at the warehouse store.

Steen said she knew something was up when the only parking spot she could find was near Route 59.

“Did I miss the memo that the world is going to end?” Steen said she asked another customer.

She was told the cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day parades in Naperville and Chicago made people more aware of just how serious the coronavirus situation was becoming and spurred them to stock up.

Steen said couldn’t help herself. When another shopper saw what appeared to be a run on cereal at an end cap, Steen grabbed a box. she said. It happened again with peanut butter.

“I fell into the hype,” she said. “It’s just my husband and I. I don’t need cereal … and now I have three big things of peanut butter,” which she’ll add to the pantry along with 67 rolls of toilet paper.

“If this is what’s happening now, I can’t imagine what it will be like later. That’s frightening,” Steen said.

Dr. Aaron Weiner, director of addiction services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville, said it’s very important for people to recognize that 80% of coronavirus cases are mild and individuals under age 50 have a low mortality rate (0.2%).

“You will probably be fine,” he said. “If you operate under the assumption that you and your loved ones will be OK, your anxiety will be significantly lower than if you ruminate on possible catastrophic outcomes.”

Excessive anxiety can negatively impact on all areas of a people’s lives and their immune system, he said. Good coping mechanisms at this time are essential to one’s health and well-being. In a blog he posted on the Edward-Elmhurst website,, he offers tips for helping people have a more positive approach.

Weiner urges people to avoid engaging in what he deemed “safety behaviors,” those activities that increase anxiety without making one any safer, like wearing or hoarding masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that masks are useful for containing germs if people are sick, not for keeping germs out when they’re out in public.

When people wear masks, they tend to touch their face more, which is counterintuitive and increases the risk of contracting the virus, Weiner said.

Instead, Weiner suggests people focus on what they can control, such as following proper hand washing guidelines, avoiding mass gatherings and exercising appropriate social distancing.

“Calling someone on the phone instead of meeting in person, that is something we can control,” he said.


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