• Audrey Tang

When imagined fear causes actual fear: the perils of "Panic buying"


"There is enough petrol in the UK" proclaim today's headlines...but where is it?! I can't fill up my car at the moment, without using what petrol I have left in order to find a station further afield. Certainly the 4 petrol stations in my near vicinity are closed...and one of them was even capping the amount which could be bought.


It reminds me of the toilet paper all over again.

Panic buying as a response to fear

So what is "panic buying"?


Largely it is a response to fear. That fear may be FOMO, it might be need, it might be anxiety exacerbated by a none too restful past 18 months and it need not even be TRUE!!! The only real reason to "panic buy" (or arguably, then it'll just be called "buying") maybe it really is that you've been past four petrol stations and you really do need to stop at the next because otherwise you'll be walking home!


...and again, in the same way as panic buying toilet paper wasn't going to stop the pandemic, panic buying petrol isn't going to solve the global problem of the HGV Driver shortage, but in our own little world, we've achieved a sense of control. Control, can also bring us calm.

The brain - which is responsible for our survival doesn't like being placed "under threat". As such, when it feels threatened (and the physiological fear response is the same whether that threat is physically present eg: a lion chasing us; or psychological eg: the fear of missing out) - we are motivated to reduce the unpleasantness of that sensation. When we feel afraid, we thus take action to alleviate it. Sometimes, that can take for form of the less-helpful soothing behaviours (drinking, recreational drugs, even risky sexual encounters) - but, there's a very simple, safe and effective way to alleviate the fear of not having petrol - go and buy some.


All the coaches and therapists out there who teach "taking effective actions" are now thinking - dammit!


Fear makes us focused only on "how do I reduce this fear"...which in turn often means: Fear makes us behave irrationally. Fear makes us selfish.


...and it's not really "panic buying" if there's a genuine shortage! (It's just panic!)

The wider problem comes when people have been able to rationalise their fear, to think, I don't need petrol just yet, I can wait - BUT the "panic buyers" (who perhaps did not need petrol*) have now bought out the stock leaving nothing left. It's now no longer fair to say someone who needs petrol, whose personal experience of driving around forecourts has taught them there is no petrol - who is now genuinely feeling anxious, 'stop panicking, it's just in your head!


*I cannot pass judgment on what is "need" for YOU and what isn't. I would hope one who might have enough petrol for emergencies, would be sensible and think - I work from home, therefore I don't "need" to fill up right now...but perhaps that's the problem...is it "panic" if there's really a need!?


But, what I will add is that Edmund King, President of the AA said of Northamptonshire petrol "...there have been occasional delays in deliveries over recent weeks that have been managed with hardly anybody noticing. This was a manageable problem."

How can we manage our anxiety in the first place

1. Has something changed to increase your anxiety? If you feel compelled to "Panic buy" and you have not done in the past - perhaps it is time to reflect on what has changed for you. It may be that you are more anxious now than you were 18 months ago, which in turn has made the drive to alleviate your feelings of fear more pronounced. It can be worth trying to identify if there are things which might cause unease that you haven't been able to process - and there is never any shame in reaching out for help if this is the case.


2. Do you, realistically, need petrol right now?! One low-level intervention specifically for panic buying is to ask yourself do I really need this item right now? If you have no plans to go anywhere, or you do have a good amount of petrol for emergencies, then you may want to balance out the extra expense and the time it might cost you to queue for petrol, against waiting it out...but only you can decide that.


3. Is there a plan B anyway? Be aware that it might be that you get to the petrol station and there is no petrol - even if you had a genuine need. Another thing that may reduce your fear before you set out may be to have a clear plan B in mind such as: can I take a taxi*; can I take public transport; can I walk? Not all of these will be possible, but knowing that "I'll be ok" again can help you manage feelings of anxiety.


* I am not sure if this is true of taxis (likely not) but some transportation companies have their own petrol reserves - ie. we don't see a London Bus at a Shell.


...and maybe it's not only up to us!

One thing I was heartened to see (even though they had also run out of petrol), was one station placing a "cap" on the amount of petrol you could fill. This reminded me of the "popular items" in supermarkets being restricted to 3 items per person. This seems a very sensible approach for companies to take to help us (in turn) manage our behaviour...if not our fear. It also means there's just that little more to go around.


Another suggestion might be that instead of the government and the media giving US the message to "Stop panic buying" - the message goes out to the companies to place a cap on the product first...if it is a reasonable assumption that any media comment on a "petrol shortage" will result in panic buying, perhaps manage the behaviour first.


But, I know you may be reading this and thinking - but that's the "nanny state" or "that's overly cautious" like lockdown...maybe it is...


The problem is, we won't really have any predictable, "correct" answer.

When a decision is made, we forget that all manner of outcomes might have been possible, and focus only on what DID happen. Perhaps in a different town (alas not Northampton), the media reports were the same, but behaviour didn't change...they may still have petrol.


...Now as I write this, I really am curious as to whether my local petrol stations have been refilled...but I don't really want to take my car out, just in case (I'm not immune to fear...the only question I have is...is the fear I feel right now about running out of petrol myself real because there actually isn't any!!??)



Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt



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