Why do people react differently when confronting the same threat?

In the face of the coronavirus, some people collected household goods. Others ignored the warnings altogether. Two Penn researchers explain why both responses are normal and how to find a middle ground if you disagree with those around you.

A pyramid made up of rolls of toilet paper on a wooden tabletop.

When COVID-19 cases worldwide started to soar, toilet paper and hand sanitizer quickly became hot commodities in the United States. Stores and online retailers couldn’t keep them stocked. Only the most expensive cleaning supplies were available, and certain foods became elusive as grocery shelves emptied.  

For some, stocking up on household necessities provided a modicum of control to counter the uncertainty that has accompanied the rise of the novel coronavirus. Others couldn’t understand the compulsive stockpiling or even looked at it with disdain. Yet both reactions are normal, as is the fact that they both happened in response to the same situation, says Thea Gallagher, director of outpatient clinic at Penn Medicine’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA). 

“We’re all wired very differently. Some of us are wired for anxiety and worry, and some have a more laissez-faire, it’s all going to work out kind of mentality,” Gallagher says. “Right now, there’s no clear end in sight, and we all respond differently to that.” 

None of us has ever experienced anything like this before, says Jeremy Tyler, a clinical psychologist at CTSA. “I’m a professional in this area, and I’m still processing what’s going on here, trying to understand how it’s affecting me and my patients.” 

One emotion both Gallagher and Tyler have seen ramped up is anxiety about what it means that a community has cases of COVID-19 or why people can’t get tested or how bad it could get for individuals, families, the country, and the world. Perception plays a large part in how much these worries get amplified for any one person. 

Someone who thinks the situation is overblown, for example, may be less likely to comply with what’s being asked and more likely to consider the restrictions an inconvenience. Someone at the opposite end of the spectrum could easily fall down what Tyler calls the rabbit hole of worry and catastrophe. 

“Everybody is capable of doing this,” he says. “That rabbit hole looks like this: ‘I’m never going to leave my house again. If I go near anybody closer than six feet, I’m going to get the virus and get sick and that’s going to be terrible and I’m going to spread it and be responsible for someone else’s death.’ Constantly thinking about that and in a catastrophic way is going to lead to more anxiety and worry. That leads to exhaustion, demoralization, and depression.” 

A close companion of anxiety is fear, another emotion currently in high gear for many people. Gallagher says this could explain the household-item hoarding, motivated by a survivalist mentality kicked into overdrive. 

“Some people are calling it panic buying to deal with the uncertainty and rapid changes,” she says. “It gives people a sense of control, a sense they did something. People think, ‘If I can keep my household, my territory, stocked and safe, I’ll be OK if the government fails me. We haven’t been told anything to the contrary, but what if all these systems fail? I need to be my own protector.’ It’s about our basic needs; if we don’t have those met, it could feel apocalyptic.”

Unfortunately, these emotions spread easily. Consider seeing someone’s grocery cart piled high with bottled water. You might suddenly feel the urge to stock up on water, too, despite knowing logically that water won’t likely become scarce in this situation. “There’s definitely a contagion to it,” says Gallagher. “‘Should I be thinking about this too?’ There’s that aspect to it.” 

This domino effect—your feelings affecting the emotions of those around you—isn’t always negative. If someone in your house has a moment of happiness, for instance, that could also be contagious. Keep in mind, however, that that same person may feel nervous and scared the next day. That’s OK, normal, and expected, according to Gallagher and Tyler, who offer pointers for keeping the catastrophic thinking at bay and working through this challenging situation: 

1. Plan what you can.

“I’ve been encouraging people to write out a bit of a routine, a plan for the day, to go outside since we’re still allowed, to exercise, to have built in social time and entertainment, to avoid aimless social media scrolling or aimless news watching,” says Gallagher. “Be intentional with your time because that’s the only thing we have a little control over right now. But also have patience with yourself during this difficult time.” 

2. Lean into the uncertainty.

Though this may seem counter to the advice above, it can actually go hand in hand, Gallagher says, “It means accepting that you don’t know what the future holds and forcing yourself to be in the present. Doing this is really hard, but it could be a good thing. We all have to do it at different times in our lives.” 

3. Understand you can only control your own behaviors.

Maybe it’s a parent who disagrees with your approach or a younger sibling or cousin who doesn’t think this is a big deal. “Know your audience,” Tyler says. “It’s fair to engage in a conversation but try to stick to concrete facts and get away from the catastrophe and worry, the what-ifs. At the same time, don’t engage the politics. Instead, get at your feelings. ‘In this moment I feel this way, therefore, when you do this or say that, it affects me in this way.’ You can’t argue with that.” 

4. Remind yourself that this will end eventually.

We don’t know when life will return to normal, but it will. “Try to settle in. If you catch yourself worrying too much about the future, try to bring it back to the present moment,” says Tyler. “Think about what you can do right now to feel better, stay healthy, and balance what you have to do with what you want to do. Try not to worry about the future and, instead, focus on how you can get creative in this odd, bizarre, scary situation.” 

Thea Gallagher is an assistant professor and director of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Jeremy Tyler is an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and director of web and day-program services at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania