It seemed like it happened overnight.
One day, we were all beginning to prepare for the impending threat of COVID-19 by taking rational measures like canceling parties, washing our hands more, and touching our faces less. Many of us began to stock up on pantry essentials, and household items like hand sanitizer and soap.
And then, toilet paper—ALL the toilet paper—was flying off the store shelves.
An item most Americans never gave much thought to was suddenly the hottest grocery commodity around. But the scarcity has serious implications for those suffering with chronic digestive health disorders. Suddenly, an essential item they need is nearly impossible to find. This adds to stress and anxiety for millions of people coping with conditions like Crohn’s Disease, IBS and colitis. Unfortunately, stress can only make painful symptoms much worse.
But, what is it about toilet paper that makes it so appealing during a pandemic? After all, it’s not a protective item like face masks or gloves. The majority of COVID-19 patients do not have gastrointestinal symptoms (although a small number have been reporting those issues).
Why toilet paper, why now?
We asked Vivante Health’s Susan Staggs, Ph.D. for insights into this phenomenon and what it means for the population coping with GI challenges. As a research psychologist, Dr. Staggs has studied the connection between the biological, psychological and social components of illness. She believes the current toilet paper hoarding (and scarcity) trend is just as complex and interrelated.
Control and Cleanliness
“There are a number of behavioral responses most of us have when we are faced with an impending crisis, and a key response is seeking ways to prepare and control any factors we are able to control,” says Staggs. Gathering necessary supplies to keep on-hand makes sense, and when we are buying items for ourselves and families, we feel more confident that we can face the unknown. It’s a very normal and healthy response. It’s only when we feel compelled to buy far more than we can realistically need and create massive stockpiles that the behavior turns from preparation to hoarding.
Toilet paper has many connotations that are likely factoring into the store-level frenzy. On the surface, it’s an item most of us buy in-bulk so we tend to perceive extra value in this purchase. It won’t go to waste or spoil, making it attractive to shoppers seeking to stock up for an yet-unknown amount of time. But there is also the cleanliness factor to consider, says Staggs.
“It’s a core concern for most of us to be clean and practice good hygiene,” she says. Our biological survival is related to basic disease prevention. Right now, thorough cleaning and handwashing is an imperative more than ever.
Other household staples related to cleanliness—disinfectant wipes, cleansers and gloves—are also being bought in quantity right now as we all work hard to prevent virus transmission through dirty surfaces. “But toilet paper is a key cleanliness item we all use, every single day… and we fear a deterioration in our hygiene if we suddenly run out of rolls,” explains Staggs.
If you don’t currently have a few rolls of toilet paper stashed under your sink, you might be worried about finding it. We have all seen the stark, empty shelves in our local stores where toilet paper was once piled high. And a strange thing happens in our brains at that moment when we see those empty shelves…we start thinking more about toilet paper. We begin to feel stress about toilet paper.
Staggs points out how this new toilet-paper scarcity mirrors the anxiety experienced by those suffering from GI conditions. “When you have gut issues that force you to make frequent visits to the bathroom, it adds stress to your day. There’s stigma surrounding these diseases. You think a lot about an activity that’s usually private and not-talked-about.”
Suddenly, for those with digestive struggles, this toilet paper scarcity is making those conditions more visible, says Staggs. “Sufferers may inadvertently draw attention to the amount of toilet paper they are using, making for uncomfortable quarantining situations if diarrhea flares up.”
Stress is a known factor in making symptoms more severe, so it’s extra important to find ways to keep fears and anxiety to a minimum. Here are a few recommendations for anyone feeling especially worried right now:
- Practice deep breathing and use movement as a tension-reduction tool. Take even a short walk outside or do a few light stretches if you feel overwhelmed.
- Reach out for support. If you need help shopping or tracking down toilet paper, remember it’s an issue for lots of people right now. You’re not alone. Use social media community pages to track down tips for finding that elusive TP in your area.
- Talk with a trusted friend, or pull out a journal. Jot down your biggest concerns right now and document what you’re feeling.
- If you have access to telehealth or virtual visits with your physician, use them. Digital solutions like GIThrive® from Vivante Health can help manage GI symptoms and get extra health support during this challenging time.
“At the moment, we are all experiencing an unprecedented event. No one is sure how long it will last so it’s very important for our ongoing health and well-being to address anxiety as we go through this time,” says Staggs. “Take care of yourself to boost your health.”
And the good news is, the actual supply of toilet paper is not diminishing even as demand skyrocketed over the past month—the supply chain is operating as it should be. There is no shortage, and in time there may be surplus sales at your local retailer.
So, find reasons to be positive, and look forward to those inevitable toilet paper sales.