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Missing all the little things you took for granted before lockdown? You could be dealing with empty shelf syndrome

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Lauren Geall
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Missing all the little things you took for granted pre-lockdown? You could be dealing with empty shelf syndrome.

If you had to pick one thing you’re missing from your pre-lockdown life, what would it be? For some, it’s being able to pick up a morning coffee before heading into the office. For others, it’s drinking wine on the sofa with a couple of mates, laughing away until the early hours of the morning.

Just the other day I was speaking to my colleagues about how much I miss “popping to the shop”. It’s an activity so wonderfully simple – and something I wouldn’t have thought twice about before the coronavirus outbreak – but being able to walk to my local corner shop and pick up some utterly unessential item like a crème egg or a packet of crisps now sounds like absolute heaven. It’s the small things, and all that.

I’m sure most of us have had one or more conversations with our friends about the things we took for granted before lockdown. But have you ever stopped to wonder why we’re so emotionally attached to such everyday objects and routines – and why not being able to do those things is leaving us feeling so anxious and/or sad?

Enter “empty shelf syndrome”. The term, coined by The Recovery Centre psychotherapist Michelle Scott, describes that feeling of emptiness we’re all experiencing thanks to our sudden lifestyle shift. All the things we’d been looking forward to or expecting to happen, such as festivals, birthday celebrations or holidays, have now been taken away from us, and been replaced with a feeling of uncertainty. 

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“It’s that idea that now we’re all suddenly being deprived of things, we’re beginning to realise how dependent on them we were,” Scott explains. “It’s about our need to have things which make us feel human and safe and connected.”

Our attachment to objects is, Scott explains, completely natural – and comes from the attachments we form to soothe ourselves during childhood and as we grow up into adults. For example, you may have had a favourite blanket or teddy bear when you were younger, and those objects helped you to become independent from your parents and feel safe when they weren’t near. As we grow up and move away from these early symbols of comfort, it’s natural for us to become attached to other objects and routines – such as a morning coffee or daily trip to the shop, for example.

However, when these symbols of safety and normality are taken from us – by a global pandemic, for example – we lose that sense of control, so we try and re-establish that sense of security in any way possible.

A supermarket aisle
Things we are missing in lockdown: a trip to the shop for a non-essential item sounds like heaven right now.

“We may not realise how attached we are to the objects or things that are familiar, and now these things are gone we’re trying to grab at whatever we can to sort of fill that gap,” Scott says. “We feel completely helpless and out of control – and that might be leading to some of the panic buying we’ve been seeing.

Trying to regain control by heading to the shops and taking matters into our own hands makes sense – but why toilet roll?

“What the current situation is tapping into for a lot of us is a feeling of helplessness – so we start to grab for anything we can,” Scott adds. “The toilet roll panic buying is such a bizarre thing – everyone knows it doesn’t make sense.  

“But we don’t realise that we are emotionally attached to something like toilet roll, because it’s so familiar. It represents normality when we feel like we don’t have anything to trust anymore, because everything we thought was true before now isn’t.”

In this way, panic buying is one way we’re trying to stem our anxiety right now, because taking matters into our own hands and surrounding ourselves with items that feel familiar and safe helps us to feel more in control.

It’s also probably why so many of us are turning to online shopping at the moment. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent way too much time browsing online retailers and buying meaningless things you don’t need over the last couple of weeks. Of course, some of this is spurred on by lockdown-induced boredom – but it’s also a way for us to establish a feeling of normality. 

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So how should we handle our empty shelf syndrome? Online shopping isn’t necessarily harmful – but when we turn to substances such as alcohol to fill the lockdown-induced void, that’s when it becomes a problem.

“I think a lot of people have become quite manic and are trying to do everything to cover up these uncomfortable feelings, but try not to fill those gaps,” Scott advises. “There’s lots of amazing initiatives starting at the moment, and it’s not to say that people shouldn’t be doing those things – it’s great that people are thinking about how they’re going to adapt – but for a lot of people that’s just rushing to cover up their anxiety and whatever feelings are coming up. I think a lot of people are at danger of burning out – because we’re all trying to do a lot.”

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For Scott, overcoming empty shelf syndrome is all about taking the time to process what we’re feeling right now. This is, of course, a situation none of us have experienced before, so we need to process all the feelings we’re having in response to the current situation.

“If you can tolerate it, give yourself a bit of space to recognise your feelings. You don’t have to understand where they come from, or even what they are,” Scott explains.

“It’s just about stopping and saying, ‘What am I noticing that’s different about me right now – am I feeling more agitated?’ and then making a more thoughtful, wise choice about what you need to do next.”

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