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Coronavirus: As stores limit sales, psychologist looks at why people make runs on supplies

A psychologist from St. Edward's University says the threat of coronavirus has triggered some people's 'psychological vulnerabilities,' prompting supply purchases.

AUSTIN, Texas — Over the past few weeks, stores across Central Texas have put purchase limits on products like bottled water and hand sanitizer.

All this comes amid growing threats and concerns over COVID-19, coronavirus

Dr. Tomas Yufik, an associate professor of psychology at St. Edward's University, said there are two types of people who make runs on the stores for supplies. 

"There are folks that I might work with clinically who have these psychological vulnerabilities – greater anxieties, or what’s known as somatic symptom disorder, which a lot of people know as hypochondria," Yufik said.

The other type of person is the opposite side of the spectrum – very rational, not easily swayed by fear.

“You can sort of compare it to when you hear about a plane crashing," Yufik said. "When you hear about a plane crashing, even the most rational, logical person might get a little bit nervous when they take a flight because all the images are in their minds. Rationally, we know these things are very rare; flights are still very safe, but you might be primed to be a little bit more cautious."

Yufik noted many people on both sides of the spectrum look to buy extra supplies in an effort to be prepared. Much of this is fueled by a lack of knowledge around coronavirus.

Credit: Heikki Mustonen
A shelf sits empty after people bought out supplies.

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"So much of this is unknown, and that of course fuels a lot of the things we’re observing," Yufik said. "Doctors make comparisons to the flu and talk about how that’s much worse, but that’s different because we know so much about the flu and there’s a vaccine for it. We know sort of how that plays out. Because of the novel factor of this, we really don’t know all of the details. For folks that are prone to catastrophizing – that are prone to worst-case scenarios – whatever is missing, they’re going to insert their own catastrophes into that."

In an effort to help people who are overly concerned about the virus, Yufik noted it's normal to have some anxiety. He added those people should not hesitate to look for help through mental health counseling.

"We’re not really minimizing the potential threat of what’s going on; it’s definitely a serious situation, but what you do have control over is how you can react and how you can rationally approach things going on in your life so it does not impair your daily activities," Yufik said.

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