From Baby Ducks to Toilet Paper: Stress Spending in a Pandemic

Posted: December 15, 2020

How COVID-19 has sparked a wave of impulse buying and hoarding

“Quack!” Said Poppy and Mei Mei, senior Lily McClelland’s two baby ducks, as they waddled around a pen near the dining room table of her Edina home. 

McClelland had brought up the idea of buying and raising baby ducks to her mom during quarantine, after senior Sophie King had suggested it, but never thought it would actually happen.

“I remembered my mom talking about ducks and how she wanted them because she had a friend that had them, so I asked her about it and she got super excited, but I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere,” said McClelland. “A few weeks later she’s on her laptop and closes it and says, ‘I just ordered three baby ducks to come in the mail.'”

She received the ducks when they were only one day old and raised them until they were able to live outside on their own and, eventually, fly away.

McClelland is among many who have made interesting purchases during the COVID-19 pandemic. With stress levels skyrocketing and many left craving security, there’s been a variety of different coping strategies used to navigate this pandemic. For some, it’s been spending money. 

From impulse shopping and panic buying everything from baby ducks to toilet paper, a survey from Credit Karma found that over a third of Americans are stress spending as a way of dealing with coronavirus. Out of that third, almost half stated they made impulse shopping a weekly habit, and an additional 17% stated it was a daily habit. Despite all the worry surrounding jobs, the economy, and personal finances, many Americans now are spending more than they did pre pandemic.

Psychology teacher Julie Johnson chalks this up to boredom and craving a false sense of security. 

With social gatherings almost nonexistent as well as the encouragement to spend as much time at home as possible, people are finding themselves bored. To combat these feelings of boredom, many are turning to online shopping as a way to fill the time and provide a sense of control. 

“If I want to buy myself a new pair of shoes or a new pair of earrings or a new sweatshirt or whatever, fill in the blank,” said Johnson. “I can do that and it’s pretty fun to get a box in the mail and open it up and you have a new thing. It’s this constant kind of searching, like ‘maybe this will make me feel better, maybe this will make me feel more normal.’ And it’s the cycle of, ‘my life’s out of control, and buying random things that I don’t need is a way that I can have control.'”

Making impulse buys can also make us feel psychologically better due to the release of the dopamine it triggers in the brain. However, this means making compulsive purchases can also be somewhat addictive. Columbia University Medical Center Associate Professor, David Sulzer, describes other experiences that spark a similar psychological response to shopping’s chemical hit.

“You’re getting a release of a chemical in the brain which is associated with learning,” Sulzer told CBS News. “With making new memories, and with learning behaviors and how to repeat them.”

A consequence of continually making random purchases is the accumulation of stuff, or hoarding, another widespread behavior the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out in individuals. Evident from empty shelves, buying limits and a nationwide shortage of toilet paper, many people are spending large amounts of money stocking up on groceries and essentials as well as some nonessentials, for instance, entertainment and alcohol. 

In times of heightened stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, hoarding is a natural instinct in an attempt to gain a sense of security, much like impulse buying.

Johnson explains, “Our brainstem is the primitive, survival area of our brain. It’s like ‘I’ve got to survive,” she said. “Also, different areas of our brain that are involved with the emotions come into play. Those parts of our brain become turned up and prominent, and the over activity of everything we’ve been going through like the major emotions, all puts us in a different headspace than we’ve ever had to be in before. So your brain kind of indulges in these behaviors of survival, like what do we need to do to survive.”

With all the unknowns surrounding this pandemic, many have been feeling an extreme sense of loss of control, and emotions are running high. From school, sports, and social events being cancelled to the ominous threat of getting COVID-19, there are very few things that remain in our control. To quell these feelings of uncertainty and not being in charge, many turn to hoarding.

“It’s this loss of control over your environment and trying to take some control back,” Johnson states. “Well, I can’t go to school, and I can’t go to church, and I can’t see my family for the holidays, but you know what I can do, I can buy 100 rolls of toilet paper!”

Additionally, When there’s perceived scarcity or feelings that there won’t be enough to suit our needs and wants, hoarding is a common response. Even if items are not actually in short supply, gathering what we feel we’ll need provides a short-term sense of relief. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Believing that you are ‘doing something’ to prevent your fears can give you a false sense of control and temporarily relieve anxiety.”

Social learning theory, or the idea that people learn from observing and imitating others’ behaviors, also plays a role in hoarding. When we see others stocking up all around us, it leads us to believe that it’s something we also should be doing. 

Sophomore Liv Andreasen recalls her families’ anticipation of items being out of stock, and in response, their idea to gather what they believed would be necessary over quarantine. 

“Before the stay at home order was in place, we made an online order of all the essentials,” said Andreasen.

Overall, Johnson believes that the unique behaviors this pandemic has drawn out of individuals, such as hoarding and stress spending, will be the subject of many psychological studies to come as well as a source of learning for all of us.

“Everything is heightened right now with people’s stress and anxiety levels, and it’s unfortunate,” said Johnson. “After this pandemic is over I think we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves, a lot more about how our brain works, a lot about what we can do, and a lot about how resilient we can be.”

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