Panic-buying taking toll on fuel supply and mental health

Joel Brown Image
Thursday, May 13, 2021
Triangle panic-buying taking toll on fuel supply and mental health
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The Triangle is having a case of déjà vu, consumers did the same thing at the start of the pandemic: panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper. And now we're doing the same thing with gas.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- There was something very familiar about what's played out at Triangle gas lines this week. Consumers did the same thing at the start of the pandemic: panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper. And now we're doing the same thing with gas. It's taking a toll on our fuel supply and our mental health.

There's plenty of gas in the U.S. The problem is getting it to NC without the Colonial Pipeline

"So I came to North Carolina and I'm seeing this line outside the station. And I didn't really think much of it," said Annie Bennett whose patience level is running just about as low as her fuel gauge.

The 20-year-old college student arrived from Maryland in her blue Honda on Monday for a week with friends in Durham.

"And then I came here and find out half the stations are out of gas. And so I'm a little worried about getting home," she said.

Pranav Jindal, a professor of marketing at UNC's Kenan Flagler Business School defined the phenomenon of panic buying.

Colonial Pipeline restarting operations, will take 'several days' for a return to normal

"It is very common for a normal person to look at these lines and press the panic button," he said describing the moment when consumers become driven by an uncertainty about gas availability or a perceived shortage of fuel -- despite official word from the governor and experts that fuel supply is normal. The panic turns into herd behavior.

"I walk out and I suddenly see these long lines and I'm like, 'Gee, these people might know something I do not know.' And then I start ignoring what the authorities tell me because I don't want to be that one person who is left out, who does not have gas while everyone is sitting with a full tank," Jindal said. "That is herding behavior. People just want to follow the pack."

And when everyone follows the pack at the same time, a perceived shortage of gas can quickly turn into a real one

"It really just exposes the vulnerability that we're experiencing right now as a community," said WakeMed psychiatrist Dr. Nerissa Price who believes the fuel fears have triggered our body's fight or flight response to stress.

She said examples of people who don't need gas irrationally waiting in long lines or the fistfight that broke out in one Knightdale gas line on Tuesday are clear signs that we haven't managed the prior trauma of a year-long pandemic.

"For a lot of people they've just been pushed to the edge of their level of stress," Price said. "If you were someone that found yourself over-reacting then maybe it's an opportunity to look at yourself and check-in to ask, 'Am I doing well? Has this really pushed me?'"

Dr. Price's tip: take a very deep breath. It's the antidote to the body's stress response. It helps to think more clearly. It's also it's worth considering some professional therapy.

As for Annie Bennett, she is busy Googling gas locations and using the Gas Buddy app in hopes of finding gas in time to leave town on Friday.