COVID-19 VIRUS: Lessons from the Toilet Paper Rush of 2020


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If someone had asked you last January what would be the first thing you’d do if a pandemic were to sweep the world, what would you have said? I might have said that I’d rush to the grocery store to buy water, canned goods, and frozen food, then I’d hit the pharmacy for my prescriptions, aspirin, and finally the liquor store for a bottle of wine (or two, hey, I’m Italian). But the last thing, the very last thing I would think of would be toilet paper!

After pondering this for a while I came to realize that in normal times (i.e., pre-February) we go about our day-to-day lives only subliminally conscious of all the things that contribute to our sense of control and mastery. Toilet paper, an unsung hero of our pre-virus days, had always been a dependable part of our lives characterized by routine, stability, and a sense of control.

So, what’s the linkage between COVID19 and toilet paper? 

To answer this, first understand that human beings hate being out of control—we absolutely loathe it! When we feel vulnerable our brains are wired to mobilize our resources to protect ourselves. Whether it’s an irrational panic (running out of toilet paper) or a rational concern (developing a fever and cough), when our brain feels out of control, it acts the same way—it releases “alarm” chemicals.

When we perceive danger, a brain structure called the amygdala mobilizes our body’s fight-or-flight chemistry. Everything in us becomes part of a survival sequence preparing to protect us from further vulnerability. This protective mechanism happens at a lower level than our “thinking” brain, which means it’s much better at promoting immediate action rather than relying on our thinking brain to figure it out. If, for example, a car is careening out of control and you’re in the crosswalk, it wouldn’t serve you to ask, “Hm, should I leap left or perhaps….” By the time you answer, you would probably be toast. This is why we have more primitive survival capacities—they offer immediate survival responses.

Sounds good, huh?

Well, yes and no. Yes, if you’re in a crosswalk and an out-of-control car is headed right for you. And no, if there’s a run on toilet paper at the grocery store and your body’s reacting as if an out-of-control car is approaching! 

So, why in the world would we worry or even panic about not having enough toilet paper? 

For starters, a worry-thought of not having enough toilet paper can create a sense of apprehension, “What will I do?” This could be followed by a panicky, “I HAVE TO have toilet paper!” Which may nudge your amygdala into releasing adrenaline and cortisol—stress chemicals that set off an alarm reaction. And it is this reaction that has people literally running down the aisles filling their baskets with toilet paper. Once the shopping basket is full, our chemicals begin to slowly return to normal as we begin to feel more in control.

During times like these we face many challenges—certainly not only finding toilet paper. But whatever the stressor, it pays to be aware of your amygdala’s alarm system. Keep in mind that when we’re stressed the amygdala becomes overactive and the “thinking area” of the brain becomes suppressed. This is why we are capable of doing horrendous, embarrassing things when we panic.

To maintain a sense of emotional balance, here are a few Self-Coaching tips:

Share your feelings with someone. When we share feelings with someone, a hormone in our brain called oxytocin (sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”) promotes empathy and—ready for this—prompts pro-social and moral behavior, i.e., not hoarding toilet paper! 

Do some belly breathing. Mindful breathing is a technique where you direct your awareness and attention to your breath. Place your hand on your belly. As you inhale push your belly out against your hand. Hold a second, then slowly exhale, feeling your hand gently push in against your belly. A few cycles of this can do wonders to quell an overactive amygdala.

Do a body scan. Make a tight fist. Hold it for a few seconds, then relax your hand. Notice the difference—tense vs. relaxed. Go through the various muscle groups in you body, tense the muscles, then relax. We can carry tension around all day and not realize it, but once you realize it, you have a choice: R-E-L-A-X.

Separate facts from emotional fictions. Worry deals with the future, while concern deals with here-and-now facts. It’s okay to be somewhat nervous and concerned about the consequences of this pandemic, however it’s imperative that you insist on staying with the facts and not projecting future chaos. Here-and-now concerns are proportionate reactions to circumstantial stressors. Emotional fictions, specifically, compulsive worrying, are disproportionate projections of insecurity.

Exercise. Go for a walk, do some yoga. Exercise reduces those amygdala stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol while increasing endorphins that are mood elevators. 

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