The basis of a pandemic is the rapid spread of disease, but feelings of fear and panic can spread even faster than a highly contagious virus. The global reach of modern media, paired with images of empty stores and messages of economic doom, demonstrate how the fear of contagion is inflicting our society. So why does this happen and how can we prevent it?
Fight or flight is ingrained in us. When we perceive a threat, the amygdala in our brain receives sensory information and quickly detects stimuli associated with danger. It then transfers this message from the brain to the rest of the body to facilitate a response.
We are also trained to watch other members of our species for clues about potential danger. Imagine one gazelle sensing danger and running. When runs, the whole herd naturally follows. This is why we are so in tune to the panic of others. We even have a specific brain region, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which lights up when we sense fear in others. The ACC then transfers this signal to the amygdala and triggers our own fight or flight instinct.
People rely on each other. This is why it is so easy for fear to spread through large groups of people. Unfortunately, the constant nature of social media and the 24 hour news cycle means our brains never get a break from these fear triggers. This is how mass panic spreads.
Fortunately, there are solutions. It is important to stay informed, so shutting out all news is not necessarily the solution. Maintain a few reliable, accurate news sources to check regularly for updates and critical information, but otherwise, consider taking a media break. Limit your time on social networking sites and block out sensationalist news that seeks to elicit reaction, rather than inform.
Lastly, be a source of calm. We look to others for how to respond to a crisis, so be a calm and confident figure for those around you, especially children who pay extra attention to their elders for behavioral queues. Our ability to read other humans and respond accordingly is one of our greatest assets. It allows societies to collaborate, share ideas, and be empathetic. As COVID-19 breeds feelings of fear and uncertainty, use this innate human response as a solution to bring those around you together in community spirit, rather than to tear us apart out of fear.