But why toilet paper? Productive ways to manage COVID-19 anxiety

Empty shelves of toilet paper are becoming a common sight in Australia. Picture: ABC/Kelsie Iorio

Toilet paper shelves are emptying across the country and according to Western Sydney Local Health District’s acting executive director of mental health Professor Bill Brakoulias, there is an evolutionary reason for it.

Prof Brakoulias says behaviours we are seeing in response to COVID-19 are categorised as ‘hoarding’.

“Hoarding behaviours are underpinned by a thought that we might need something in the future,” Prof Brakoulias said.

“Just like squirrels that gather acorns for winter, it is in our human nature to select things and keep them in case we need them for future use.

“When people get anxious they have what’s called ‘catastrophic cognitions’ – they think of the worst case scenario – and one way of controlling this anxiety is to collect things and keep things in order to feel safe.”

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Professor Bill Brakoulias. Picture: University of Sydney

Prof Brakoulias said the toilet paper collection is likely to do with people simply wanting a product before it runs out.

“Toilet paper takes a lot more room in the shopping centre shelves, so it’s a lot more obvious when a whole aisle is missing compared to a can of baked beans for example,” Prof Brakoulias.

“This makes people want to get their packet in case they completely run out.

“The desire for toilet paper is also linked to Freudian psychology – people are focusing on the needs of their bodily functions because they are anxious.”

Prof Brakoulias said there are more important things for the community to do, that don’t include toilet paper hoarding.

“Anxiety stems from an inability to control things. Luckily there are some things we can do to manage our response to COVID-19,” Professor Brakoulias said.

Here are the top suggestions:

  • Wash your hands regularly, especially before meals
  • Wipe surfaces with disinfectant including steering wheels, keyboards, smartphones
  • Try to not make assumptions – look at balanced sources of information when seeking information about COVID-19, such as the NSW Health website
  • Continue to monitor social media but remember to focus on information from verified accounts such as the NSW Health and Western Sydney Health social media accounts  
  • Exercise and eat healthy – this will boost your immunity
  • Explore stress management and relaxation management techniques

“Anxiety occurs on a spectrum from normal to pathological,” Prof Brakoulias said.

“COVID-19 can exacerbate existing problems, so if you are struggling, please call a health professional or phone a help line.”

If you or someone you know is in a crisis situation, please call triple-0 or the following organisations for support:

  • Mental Health Hotline (Open 24 Hours) – 1800 011 511
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 22 46 36
  • Men’s Help – 1300 78 99 78