Hey, folks. Anyone else out there got a bit of a tight feeling in their chest right now? Yeah. Me too. Super fun, right? Having a symptom of anxiety that could signal the onset of a fairly unnerving virus. It doesn’t help.
I was doing okay on the anxiety front until Monday. The news over the weekend had been increasingly worrying, especially reading about the toilet paper hoarding (which we are already laughing about, sort of). Not because I needed to pick up toilet paper, fortunately, but because I am more worried about people panicking than I am anything else. If we keep calm and follow the CDC’s instructions, we can pull through and keep the death toll lower. If we panic, well. I’m trying to believe we can keep the panic low.
In hopes of reaffirming my faith in humanity, I thought I’d go to the grocery store. “Surely the news outlets are reporting worst case scenarios,” I thought. “I’ll just go to the store early on Monday morning like I always do and it will be fine. They might be out of toilet paper and bottled water and beans, but it will be better than I’m imagining.”
When I walked in the door, I thought it would be. The parking lot was busier than usual for a Monday morning, but it wasn’t packed. There were no lines are the door. There was a sign asking people to limit themselves to one sanitizing wipe per cart, but that’s fine. There were wipes to be had. The produce section had plenty of everything except carrots and sweet potatoes, and it still had a few of those. There was plenty of cheese and deli meats and the nice fish lady was laying out her pretty displays of fresh fish for the morning.
And then I turned into the baking aisle to pick up my usual bread flours and some yeast.
It was a barren wasteland.
Trigger Warning: I’m going to describe a mild anxiety attack in a little bit of detail here. Skip to the next heading if you need to.
That was when my chest started to ache.
Anxiety is a very physical beast. It’s an adrenaline reaction. Adrenaline is like raging in roleplaying games: it makes us stronger and faster…and stupider. Your heart pounds, your breaths get shallow, you start to feel warm. Fun tidbit (google-verified, but I’m not a doctor): your liver releases stored sugar into your system during an adrenaline rush. If you’re not actually physically using that sugar energy, you basically get the kind of shaky energy that you might associate with too much caffeine or holiday candy. Your blood is being reprioritized to your muscles, and that means oxygen to your brain is reduced.
The impact of my brain shorting out on my shopping trip was that I had an incredibly hard time following my list. In the rows of largely-but-not-completely empty shelves, I couldn’t even imagine where half of the items ought to be to know if I had actually checked for their presence or not. My cart and my list had a larger discrepancy than usual, and I honestly can’t tell you how much of that gap is due to stuff being sold out and how much was due to panic making me stupid.
The fun thing about that adrenaline “fight or flight” response is that it triggers different kinds of stupidity. I’ve got a real case of rabbit brain, almost always defaulting to “flight.” Anxiety shuts me down and makes me want to sit still, hope no one notices, and wait for the danger to pass, priming me to bolt if there’s no other option. Shopping in a wildly different environment that should have felt familiar, that meant that I walked out without a lot of things and felt disoriented and scared. In some people whose brains tend…lizard-wards, I guess? (Be kind to my evolutionary biology analogies…I think people know what I mean by lizard-brain, though I don’t know if it’s accurate.) Anyway, some people experience fear-based adrenaline as a push to fight. That’s probably what’s going on with those videos of people getting into physical altercations over toilet paper or rage-buying 150 lbs. of flour for a family of four.
I’m not a dumbass. They’re not assholes. We’re human beings facing a new type of scary that we don’t have coping mechanisms for. We’re reacting to a physiological response that is amplified by seeing others behave in ways that validate both the physical response and the reactive behaviors.
The best thing we can do to help improve the access to normal supplies is to find a bit of calm. To think, not react.
So…how do we not react?
I will tell you what stopped me from clearing out all of the baby cereal instead of just buying what I needed. This was an especially hard one for me, because the idea of my baby going hungry makes me queasy, but I managed. And this helpful hint is going to get dark for a second before it gets hopeful. Are you ready?
WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY FUCKED WITHOUT ONE ANOTHER.
I am dead serious. Do you know how to produce enough food to feed one single person in your family through an entire year? Most of us do not. We home gardeners have a few things we can grow, but a salad garden with a few beans and potatoes isn’t going to get you very far.
Even within a broader local community, the food access isn’t there. Maine, for example, is a very back-to-the-earth, farming-oriented community with a lot of food production knowledge that includes organic methods that include cultivating diverse crops, but the capacity to produce and distribute food locally is limited.
And let’s pretend that Maine could manage to feed itself. You go ahead and just tell me you’re completely fine eating buckwheat as your primary grain for the rest of your life when civilization collapses. I dare you. Wheat is delicious. Unless you have a gluten allergy, of course, in which case, I’m very sorry and I really hope you always have access to safe grain alternatives that are texturally more pleasant than straight-up buckwheat…alternatives that are dependent on civilization carrying on. And let’s not even mention coffee, chocolate, avocados, bananas, and citrus fruit.
Put more pleasantly, this is a really good time to reflect on the Nguni Bantu philosophy of ubuntu. “I am because we are.”
Our best bet for survival, not just as a civilization but as isolated individuals, is to take care of one another while things are uncertain.
I don’t have to tell you how fast we wouldn’t be able to rely on grocery stores. You’ve seen it now. The idea that we’d be looting stores for more than a day if things really went belly-up is absurd. Grocery stores stock narrow margins because storing food isn’t profitable. We’ll all starve in no time flat if we let our deeply connected and interdependent world tear itself apart.
Here’s the hopeful story.
Grocery stores do stock narrow margins. We imagine Crazy Shoppers wrestling for pallet after pallet of food that they’re loading into massive trucks and burying in concrete bunkers, but is that what people are really doing? I doubt it. Here’s what I think happened.
I read an article about why toilet paper was the triggering household essential: it’s bulky. Because it’s bulky, it’s expensive to store. Essentially, it’s made on demand. So news is coming out that we need to hunker down at home for a couple of weeks, and people who are prepared to do the right thing and stay distant say, “Sure! I’ll get ready to stay home longer! Flatten that curve!” And so a household (cough, mine, cough) that normally buys a 4-pack of toilet paper grabs a 12-pack. That doesn’t seem like a lot to me, the shopper, but it’s a 300% increase over my normal buying habit. If a third of the shoppers around me have made similar decisions and the store is really good at guessing what we normally want on a given day, you end up with two-thirds of shoppers not having toilet paper.
Ish. Probably. I’m not sure the math actually works that way, and economics are more complicated, but the point is that a larger number of people making small decisions can have a visually large impact depriving people of the option to buy a staple they rely on. Those people are then confronted with the scariness of an unexpectedly empty shelf, and what happens? Fear. Adrenaline. They get dumb and start buying bottled water like we’re dealing with a weather event because that’s what previous experience with emergency preparedness has taught them to do, and that sends the message that basic infrastructure is about to collapse in unpredictable ways, and all of a sudden you have people buying out the entire stock of lentils even though they have never eaten a lentil in their lives.
The fear spirals.
Hold that thought.
Thomas Harris wrote a book in 1967 called “I’m OK, You’re OK.” It’s grounded in transactional analysis, and there’s a super useful takeaway that I want you to think about for a minute. He argues that we all have one of two ways of thinking of ourselves and others. We can think that we ourselves either are or are not okay and that the people we interact with either are or are not okay. His premise is that the healthiest combination of possibilities is to believe the best of ourselves and others, as the title suggests. We’re all okay.
The reason I find this parameter of mental health to be compelling is that I think it reflects reality. Being human is hard and we don’t always make the best choices, but given the resources and knowledge we have, we are, on the whole, all out there doing our best to be tolerably decent people.
Let’s look at the toilet paper again.
And all of the so-called “hoarding,” really. We know that we’ve all been told to stay inside to flatten the curve, to save lives. We know that this order is going to stay in place for awhile and that things will get worse for a couple of weeks as we climb towards the peak of the curve. Buying a little extra in order to keep yourself out of public space is a pro-social behavior. The reality of food distribution (which, again, is evidence that we will all be better off if we keep it together) makes the shelves look scarily empty, but there’s not currently an actual food shortage thing going on. There’s a “people are trying to do the right thing and getting scared and going a little overboard” thing going on.
The fundamental difference is perspective. In the first assumption (food shortage), every person for themselves feels necessary for survival. In the second assumption, ascribing good intent to your neighbors makes it easier to look at the shelves and say, “Hey, cool, my community is preparing to practice good social distancing.” And that makes it easier to maybe just buy a 6-pack of toilet paper instead of a 24-pack, or to only buy one bag of lentils that you have no idea how to cook. And to look for the WIC label and leave those items on the shelf for people who don’t have other options.
(Learning how to cook lentils, for the record, is a perfectly lovely goal for yourself under quarantine. They’re sustainable and delicious. Here’s my favorite recipe. Eat more lentils.)
And if your calm fails?
It will. It’s scary out there. Calm yourself down when you’re home and the food is stashed and you’ve washed your hands and start to feel safe again. Have a glass of water and a deep breath. Then step back and assess whether you went a little overboard and think of a way to turn your anxiety purchases into helping.
Maybe you can offer to split a purchase with an elderly neighbor who should avoid the store completely. Maybe you can donate extra goods to your local food pantry. Maybe you can find out who could use your extras through a Facebook group. Maybe you just commit to staying out of the stores until you’ve used your stash up to leave more supplies and breathing space available for others.
Do what you can to take care of your community and trust that those other panicking shoppers are experiencing the same cycle of fear and chagrin. That mutual trust is the glue that keeps society working, and society is lovely. Society gives us coffee. (Which you definitely need to not be drinking before shopping if you’re struggling with the whole staying calm thing.)
Finally, in case it helps…
I’ve started compiling a Tumblr of positive, free, helpful, uplifting resources that folks are creating or sharing in generosity to help each other through suddenly having to play educator and parent and worker while being cut off from mental space and friends and social support. It’s a work in progress and you can submit things you find, if you want to. If nothing else, I find that looking for the helpers reaffirms my belief that we really are, by and large, okay.
Here’s the link: https://distanttogether.tumblr.com/
Be kind. Be calm. Have a little faith in one another…and wash your hands.