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Comic Strips, Canines and TP: 3 Ways to Stay in Control in Out-Of-Control Situations

A woman relaxing at her home office with a cup of coffee and feet up on her desk.

People do some odd things to maintain a sense of control in trying times. For example, after the Great Depression, readers of 1930s comic strips showed a strong preference for powerful characters like Superman and the Lone Ranger. In prior years, only 10% of comic heroes had powerful personas as compared to over half in the immediate post-Depression era.

This phenomenon also appears in people’s pet choices. The early 1960s were a calm time, and less than 10% of Americans owned protective breeds like Doberman Pinschers, according to American Kennel Club registration numbers. Their popularity went up over 3% in the economic turmoil at the end of that decade, while the popularity of small dog breeds plummeted.

A chronic lack of control can even lead to mental disorders. For example, research shows strong links between eating disorders, in which individuals often exercise hyper-control over their eating habits, and abuse or other circumstances that give them a sense of helplessness in other areas of life.

Given the effects in comics and canines, is it any wonder that Americans today are turning to toilet paper hoarding to regain a sense of control amidst the COVID-19 craziness? That need feels even greater when you’re awash in a flood of constantly changing, and often conflicting, information. You might not know which politician or expert to believe, but you do know that you’ll always need toilet paper. Stuffing the linen closet with a necessity helps you feel like you’re “doing something.”

So how do you find healthy areas in which to exert control during a situation that baffles even world leaders and medical experts?

Here are three suggestions:

1. Take Control of Your Information Sources

It’s stressful to not know exactly what you should do and how cautious you should be about things as simple as going out for groceries or taking a walk in the park, but organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are a good start for factual information. News reports are informative, too, but they often have biases. Of course, there are also those memes posted by your friends on Facebook, claiming to be information from doctors, nurses or other authoritative sources, usually citing no real source.

If you see information somewhere other than an official channel like WHO or the CDC, ask yourself, “What bias might this source have, and how might that affect its message?” Fact check at neutral websites like FactCheck.org, which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, a non-profit, non-partisan consumer advocacy organization. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) runs a rumor-checking website and Snopes, always an enemy of fake memes and urban legends, has a page devoted to COVID-19.

2. Apply Logic to Your Decisions

The rush on toilet paper during the COVID-19 crisis quickly turned into a meme. Ironically, although familiar places like schools, workplaces and restaurants are shutting down, it’s unlikely that a shortage of toilet paper will be one of the side effects of this action, as essential businesses like grocery stores are staying open.

The rush on toilet paper shows how applying logic can prevent bad decisions. Economist Jim Luke points out in his blog that people usually buy toilet paper every couple of weeks, and stores replenish their supplies based on that pattern. In the pandemic’s early days, people stocked up on more than usual to tide them over if they had to stay in isolation. This disruption in the usual pattern caused a temporary glitch in the supply chain.

When people saw the temporarily empty shelves, they panicked and grabbed all the toilet paper they could whenever they could find it. This panic, rather than any true shortage, led to the ever-mushrooming toilet paper demand. If you still fear running out of TP and other items like paper towels, cleaning products and sanitizing wipes, take comfort in the fact that major store chains and warehouse clubs are already imposing no-return policies on regretful pandemic hoarders.

If you stick to solid sources for information, you’ll have the facts you need to avoid making illogical choices. That lets you reserve your time, energy and financial resources to make decisions that are truly helpful.

3. Take Control in Small Ways

While COVID-19 is a global crisis, people experience unexpected personal crises every day. When things like fires, floods, tornadoes, loss of loved ones and catastrophic illnesses hit home, people often look for small ways to take control. They can’t change the larger situation, so they take comfort in small victories. For example, someone suffering from cancer might decide to totally change their hairstyle. Does that help their prognosis? No. But it does make them feel better because it’s their own choice about their body.

Explore small ways to take charge in your own life. Rearrange the furniture. Clean out the garage. Fill your time in isolation to learn a new skill from YouTube videos or tap into free sources for workouts you can do at home. Do things that give you small victories and a soothing sense of accomplishment.

Give your children choices, too. Their lives are upended just as much as adults. They can’t attend school, sports and other activities. They’re not free to go out with friends or even to visit older relatives. Discuss the reasons with them, and be as honest with them as possible in an age-appropriate way. The CDC offers guidance on its website for talking to youngsters about COVID-19.

Let them make choices about things like dinner, which safe activities they’d like the family to do, and even enforcing family rules around things like hand-washing. For example, they can help you choose 20-second song clips for washing and ensure that all family members comply. This helps them feel a sense of power over COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is destined to go down in history alongside the likes of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. Hopefully our greater medical and sanitation knowledge will reduce the impact on casualties this time around. Our TP obsession is surely destined to join the historical crisis coping list, along with comic strips and canines. The outcome is still uncertain, but one thing remains true: Even if you can’t control this situation, you’ll lessen your anxiety if you focus on the things that are within your control.

Dr. Barbara Lesniak is an associate dean on the social sciences team at Southern New Hampshire University. She handles the programming side of the undergraduate and graduate psychology programs. Her past experience includes 15 years designing and delivering classroom and web-based courses in the corporate world and providing face-to-face and online counseling services. She specialized in helping online clients in acute crisis situations. Barb is also a freelance writer focusing on financial and personal development topics. She has a PsyD in psychology and expects to complete her MFA at Southern New Hampshire University this year.

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