COVID-19: The psychology of panic in Australia

COVID-19: The psychology of panic in Australia

Written by
Mar 27, 2020

Buying massive quantities of toilet paper is irrational and is an indication of panic

Many in Australia continue to panic over news of the spreading coronavirus,  COVID-19.. As death is involved, we are not quick to judge such reactions. However, there is a consensus that panicky actions like the infamous bulk-buying of toilet paper are inappropriate, even unhelpful, at this important time. It’s well documented that these actions “do not offer special protection against the virus”. What is the psychology behind these stories and many Australians right now?

Recent bushfire panic

The coronavirus outbreak came around the same time as the end of the recent bushfire crisis, so Edith Cowan University disaster response expert Erin Smith argues that many Australians “simply maintained a state of hypervigilance.”

“We still have that real baseline of mental health disturbance from the bushfires, and now we’re expecting them to deal with a pandemic”.

People have more fear of pandemics than of other disasters

A pandemic is different from scenarios like the recent bushfires. Smith notes that “with most other disasters, unless you’re right there, there’s are feeling of separation, of ‘I’m not there, I’m not directly impacted so I’m OK… but a pandemic is very different.” She argues that the vulnerability of “the entire community” “really changes people’s psyche”. Not to mention that during the bushfires there were many moving images of people coming together to resist the crisis. In contrast, the coronavirus pressures people to socially isolate themselves.

The fight-or-flight response

COVID-19 clearly triggers fear. Fear is “a complex interaction between our primitive ‘animal brain’ [the limbic system] and our sophisticated ‘cognitive brain’ [the neocortex]”. The “animal brain” may induce a “flight or flight” response “designed to make us run faster and fight harder”. This can involve physical symptoms like “palpitations, perspiration, dizziness and difficulty breathing”. Jo Daniels of The Conversation points out that the level-headed logic of our “cognitive” brain is required against COVID-19, not so much the adrenaline of our “animal brain”. Videos of people wrestling over toilet rolls in supermarket aisles suggest this self-control hasn’t happened everywhere.

COVID-19 anxiety may bring out dormant mental illness

Daniels goes on to note that because of COVID-19 “mental health problems are unlikely to develop in people who don’t already have them or aren’t in the process of developing them.” However, she suggests individuals prone to “checking”, such as “constantly making sure that the oven is off or that the front door is locked”, may become mentally unwell. (People who behave in this way may have obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD). Same goes for people who are excessively worried about if they have disease(s) (see hypochondriasis). COVID-19 may significantly worsen the mental health of already anxious people.

Advice? This may surprise you, but Daniels writes that “if you are feeling anxious, consider turning off automatic notifications and updates on COVID-19.” In fact, much advice out there is for anxious people to moderate (not remove completely) their intake of coronavirus media. Often the info is frightening but concerns things we have no control over; gluing one’s eyes to the screen may be a waste of energy. For instance, the University of Melbourne’s website on coronavirus anxiety recommends setting limits around news and social media: “focus on things that are positive in your life and actions you have control over”.


What is the “herd mentality”? Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Pandemics”, notes that “people, being social creatures […] look to each other for cues for what is safe and what is dangerous”. Remember the bulk-buying of toilet paper. Jana Bowden, an associate professor of marketing at Macquarie University, suggests that herd mentality is at work: “if you see someone buying something, and you don’t buy that, and it’s then available, you can feel buyer’s remorse”.

Supermarket queues display the herd mentality. Andy Yap, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Singapore campus of INSEAD business school, found that “even people who were queuing up in the supermarket line to buy toilet paper [had] no idea why they are buying toilet paper […] they just see other people doing it and start doing it themselves because they are afraid they might lose out”. The herd mentality has also controlled how many Australians respond to behaviours in other countries. Bowden notes that there have been “reports of toilet paper shortages” in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan: “we are taking psychological cues and signals from these other international markets”.

Social media has intensified the influence of the herd mentality. Steven Taylor names it “a huge player in novel coronavirus fear-mongering”. This is because on social media “misinformation spreads with eas, and open platforms amplify voices of panic”. Taylor writes of how “dramatic images of people wearing masks and images of empty shelves on grocery stores” have “inundated news reports and social feeds”. It seems “the fear itself is contagious”.

The need for control

Another explanation of responses to the coronavirus crisis is that they are efforts to restore a sense of control. Psychologists view control as a fundamental human need. Paul Slovic, professor of Psychology and president of Decision Research at the University of Oregon, notes that “control is a very important psychological factor in keeping us calm, if we feel like we can somehow protect ourselves in various ways”.

Ari Alstedter and Jinshan Yong of Time write that “this epidemic violates a sense of control in fundamental ways”. Why? The answer appears to be that households are uncertain of how they should respond to the coronavirus. Paul Slovic notes that “the dimensions of [COVID-19] are uncertain as opposed to the flu, where we’ve seen it so many times we sort of know what the boundaries are”. As author of a recent and relevant NBC article, Justin Sullivan, writes, “there’s nothing more fearsome than the great unknown”. Jo Daniels at The Conversation argues “it is often the intolerance of uncertainty that perpetuates anxiety rather than fear of illness itself”.

Andrew Stephen, a marketing professor at the University of Oxford’s Said business school, considers panic buying an effort “to try and get back some control”. Taylor writes that it “gives [buyers] the feeling that they had done everything they could […] it might free them to think about other things than coronavirus”. He argues that for this reason panic-buying can temporarily ease anxiety, but the effects are typically short-lived. “People who tend to be panic-buyers are likely to worry about other things, like getting infected while travelling the subway or bus”, he writes. Many are unconvinced in the government’s recommendations and will resort to drastic action in their uncertainty, because it seems better to take excessive rather than insufficient precautions. “When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat […] special danger needs special precautions.”

Advice? Experts suggest we should trust in each other and the government: “the important thing to do is to make people believe the situation in general is under control”. In this way we defer our worry to the only body large enough to grapple with it, and trust that if we play the part they recommend for us it will be enough to combat COVID-19. After all, it’s all an individual can do. Amy Dalton, a marketing professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, writes that “sociologists rate countries on various  comparing how “communal” or “individualistic” they are, which involves how much trust they generally have for each other and their government.” For this reason, more communal societies “like Singapore are better equipped to deal with things like epidemics”. Perhaps if we recall that no person is an island, we can reframe our need for control and do what we can for the community as a whole.