Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, hoarding has been on the news. People are having the urge to hoard and overbuy even when they see this behavior being mocked on social media. They may wonder, “Do I have something wrong with me? Is this OCD?”
In a word…No!
Our brains are hardwired from our evolutionary history to store extra supplies in preparation for times of scarcity. This reaction is easier to see in other animals such as squirrels who store up acorns for the winter and dogs who bury their bones to go back to later. Humans are the same in this way. We are also programmed to plan for times of scarcity, and this global pandemic has certainly created heightened anxiety in everyone about their safety and security.
Frequent information from the media during 2020 about disruptions in the supply chains has just made this more likely. For example, news of a possible shortage of meat and rising prices sent shoppers out to buy and fill their freezers with meat. Empty store shelves, where seemingly endless supplies of paper goods and cleaning supplies used to be, are frightening to see. People wonder if they should buy supplies as soon as they see any, whether they need them or not, for fear that they will soon be bought out. When you are afraid you will not have what you need, in-born mechanisms prime you to search out what you may be short of to stock up.
Despite the urge to stockpile, all those toilet paper jokes and memes are leaving people still wondering: but why toilet paper? There may be a psychological reason. Disease makes us afraid of contamination and germs. Starting in early childhood development, such as during toilet training, children learn to be concerned with tidiness, order, and cleanliness, with a focus on controlling mess and germs. During a pandemic, when germs are in the air and up for discussion, perhaps our unconscious focuses our attention on maintaining cleanliness and control of germs. Toilet paper then becomes a natural focus of stockpiling.
Saving for the future serves as an antidote to the anxiety of anticipated scarcity. This kind of planning and forecasting has an adaptive use because people are stockpiling things that can help during times of scarcity. If you have the financial means to stockpile supplies without negative consequences to yourself or your community, this preparedness response is helpful in uncertain times.
In contrast, true clinical hoarding causes distress and most often consists of keeping things of no value such as old newspapers and empty packaging, which can pose a fire risk or block entrances and exits. The need to keep something because it feels wrong to throw things away or “just in case you need it” exceeds the potential usefulness of the items being hoarded. The idea of throwing things away creates severe distress in sufferers of clinical hoarding, even if dangerous or unsanitary living conditions have developed in their homes.
If your basement or garage has a stockpile of toilet paper, rest easy in the knowledge that you are prepared during uncertain times. Please stay safe during this strange and difficult time of COVID-19. If you do have enough food and supplies, though, please consider donating to the Interfaith Food Pantry and Resource Center in Morris County http://mcifp.org/ as many New Jersey residents are unemployed and without enough food this year.
Sufferers of clinical hoarding can receive help through therapy and medication. For more information, visit the American Psychological Association’s web page on hoarding at