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How to Manage Hoarding Behaviors in Times of Crisis

The Coronavirus has shaped human behavior in numerous ways. The uncertainty of the pandemic’s course, orders to shelter in place, and feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness have resulted in purchasing supplies and food to excess. Although not formally defined, hoarding behaviors or over-purchasing is commonly understood as purchasing objects, supplies, or other items to the point that their accumulation outstrips their need. For example, it is estimated that an average American only needs 100 rolls of toilet paper a year…yet a phenomenon that has occurred across the U.S. is bulk purchases of toilet paper, resulting in empty shelves and rationing by businesses.

Hoarding behaviors seen during the COVID-19 pandemic are not to be confused with hoarding disorder, which is a mental health condition characterized by accumulating things which may or may not hold value such as newspapers, books, clothing, and even animals. Additionally, it differs from compulsive buying or shopping disorder, which often co-occurs with hoarding disorder and is characterized by, as the name suggests, excessive buying (Norberg et al., 2019). Hoarding behaviors are a common human reaction following mass events such as natural disasters and other large-scale events; for example, in 1973, low supplies of gas and electricity drove Americans to hoard toilet paper for over a month.

Although hoarding during the pandemic doesn’t mean you have hoarding or compulsive buying disorders, they all appear to be driven in part by anxiety and a way to cope with uncertainty and overwhelming circumstances (Norberg et al., 2019). Hence once the pandemic ebbs, most people will not continue to engage in hoarding behaviors. Until then, how can you manage feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and fear without stockpiling items like toilet paper?

  • Recognize that your behavior is likely driven by fear and anxiety, and give yourself permission to feel these emotions. Understand your hoarding behavior is connected to a range of emotions that are very real and may be scary. Acknowledging your feelings can help understand what is driving your actions, and is key to ultimately changing your behavior.
  • Wait before purchasing. It can be tempting to buy toilet paper or other supplies as soon as you see them on the shelf, but by waiting 20 minutes, you allow your brain to catch up to your impulse. You can even give the product to a store clerk to hold for you while you continue shopping, to offset the feeling that you will lose out if you don’t purchase it immediately. This also works virtually; save the item to your cart and walk away from the computer or continue with your other purchases while “holding” your item.
  • Get a support buddy. Form a team with a supportive family member or friend, and keep each other accountable. Identify “trigger” items like toilet paper and paper towels before purchasing, check in with your buddy, and similarly hold your friend accountable when they want to make an impulse purchase.
  • Establish support networks. Form your supportive network to share your feelings and concerns about the Coronavirus. Family and friends can be important sources of support and encouragement.
  • Engage in activities to decrease stress and emotional distress, such as exercise regularly, practice meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation strategies. 

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Norberg, M.M., David, J., Crone, C., Kakar, V., Kowk, C., Olivier, J., & Grisham, J.P. (2019).

Determinants of object choice and object attachment: Compensatory consumption in compulsive buying-shopping disorder and hoarding disorder. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1-10.

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