Anxiety in the Time of COVID-19: Toilet Paper Edition

A few days ago, I noticed the back-up stack of toilet paper was low. I paused, thinking about the urgency to go buy more toilet paper. I have never been one to let anything run out, and I tend to buy double of things I use often anyway.

But these are not ordinary times, and in one of the oddest twists of irrational panicking, many people across the U.S. have begun hoarding toilet paper in response to the possible COVID-19 pandemic.

A toilet paper panic seems to have happened first in Japan, also fearing COVID-19, but in that case, the toilet paper mania was spurred by fake news that Japan depended on toilet paper from China.

As a life-long resident of the Upstate of South Carolina, I am well-versed in irrational grocery store panicking; if the weather forecast even hints at cold rain, much less snow, ice, and sleet, the bread and milk shelves are almost instantly barren. I am still not certain why the Southern brain is wired to hoard bread and milk in case we have frozen precipitation (which almost never disrupts travel for more than a day or two any way).

No one seems to understand the toilet paper panic over COVID-19 in the U.S. either, but this is quite a real thing.

So I have been more than once lately temporarily paralyzed over taking normal and even rational measures that balance my normal life with preparing for self- or imposed quarantine—or even, dare I say it?, the zombie apocalypse.

There is a motif running through the film Zombieland in which a main character, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), meticulously explains to the audience that people who are anxious were those most well equipped for the zombie apocalypse. In an odd and ugly twist of fate, life-long practice with expecting impending doom prepares one well to survive that doom once impended.

Anxiety is mostly irrational hyper-focusing on the what ifs that virtually never happen. Like hypochondria.

However, tediously working through every worst-case scenario and being hyper-aware of everything (I mean every thing) can be extremely helpful when the worst-case comes to pass.

So I noticed a few more rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom cabinet, deciding not to further stress the system by going to the store. I have more recently bought just a few frozen dinners on the off-chance of quarantine, or COVID-19 mutating into a zombie superbug.

But the larger issue for me has been watching as my anxiety world has expanded into virtually everyone’s life. COVID-19 is something new, unknown, and unlike flu (itself very dangerous but something expected and thus known), it puts us all in an uncomfortable position between over-reacting and under-reacting.

Anxiety, the pervasive and mostly irrational kind, is about not knowing and having little or no power.

For women, there is the pervasive anxiety over physical vulnerability when walking through a dark and secluded parking lot. Being assaulted may be incredibly rare, but the possibility is there.

But clinical anxiety is far less rational or reasonable. I became sick several days ago just as my spring break began. I loathe being sick, but I also immediately thought “What if I have COVID-19?”

That was my clinical anxiety since there are almost no rational reasons for that question except some sort of proximity: I exist in a time when COVID-19 is spreading.

We anxious function in worst-case thinking. That is exhausting, mostly unproductive, and nearly always futile.

COVID-19 has thrust almost everyone into that world where not knowing and a lack of control overshadow functioning in rational and reasonable ways.

This is made even more complicated by the paradox of empirical evidence. If everyone is proactive and the COVID-19 pandemic is averted, then some will see the lack of a pandemic as evidence the proactive measures weren’t needed.

That is the perpetual life of the anxious; dozens of worst-case scenarios fretted over daily until the horrible thing hasn’t happened, or is replaced by a newer worst-case scenario.

Or some simply recycle—every minor illness or pain becomes the worst possible disease, until it isn’t.

I am also constantly policing myself to be reasonable, to give myself a break. The COVID-19 panicking makes me another level of anxious, about wanting to help and soothe those hoarding toilet paper as well as hand sanitizer and soap.

But just as it is very Southern (and ridiculous) to hoard bread and milk in winter weather, it is self-defeating to hoard those things that everyone needs to stem the possibility of COVID-19 becoming an unmanageable pandemic.

Everyone needs soap and cleaning items. Health care providers need the masks and rubber gloves.

Hoarding by a few puts all of us at greater risk.

Just as I think I am my worst self when I am in the throes of anxiety, I am watching COVID-19 spur the very worst of being an American—the got-mine urge of too many of us.

I also am seeing beyond me the very real and negative consequences of being irrational even as I understand the powerful tug of those irrational responses.

There are many of us in the clutches of anxiety and OCD who look at the alarm clock or stove with the nearly irresistible urge to turn them off perpetually. We lock the car door with the remote 19 times, and then once more, and then fret about walking back to the car to check again 15 minutes later.

The possibilities, not knowing, and not having control. These are real monsters and they aren’t lurking under the bed.

I am not certain of the claims made by Columbus, that we anxious are somehow better equipped for apocalypse.

But I am well aware of how the COVID-19 question has sparked a large-scale reaction that I recognize, have a great deal of empathy for.

I have absolutely no idea how dangerous this health event is. I do know I worry about my safety and the safety of loved ones and friends—although those worries are pervasive with or without COVID-19.

As I watch the range from over-reacting to under-reacting, I do know that I do not wish my internal world on anyone.

If you are exhausted by this new COVID-19 anxiety, by not knowing, by not really having any control, you now know my world, one I have yet to find any vacation from.