COVID-19: Why panic is not good for a pandemic

Author: Bruce J. Little

The ancient Greek God Pan is said to have prized his afternoon naps to a fault. So much so, that he would unleash an inhuman scream at anyone who disturbed him, striking fear into their hearts and causing them to flee. 

 

This is the mythological origin of the term ‘panic’, which is the product of an “unreasoning fear”, according to Merriam-Webster. 

 

The war on panic

 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some have felt that the media have fanned the flames of anxiety and overreacting but there has also been an unofficial “war on panic” by many members of the global media to counteract any overreaction and possible mayhem that has resulted from the virus. Examples of such headlines include: 

 

“Don’t Panic” – The New York Times

“Don’t Panic Be Community Minded” – The BBC

“Can We Stop The Panic Over Coronavirus?” – Al Jazeera

But why has panic occurred in the first place?

 

“The limits to human rationality are further exacerbated under strenuous conditions, such as fear”, writes behavioural analyst Marianna Baggio in an article for World Economic Forum. “Panic doesn’t just set in because of risk (mis)perceptions, however, but also because individuals perceive a lack of escape routes. Lockdowns and quarantines represent exactly that: the closing down of an escape route.”

 

What sets panic apart

 

“There needs to be a clear separation of panic, stress and anxiety,” explains Clinical Psychotherapist, Errol Hendrickse. He breaks these three phenomena down in the following ways: 

 

  • Stress is a cognitive (thought-based) process we undergo during tough times.

  • Anxiety is a sense we can actually physically experience in the body. 

  • Panic is the primal “fight or flight” response we have as a survival reaction to something that scares us. 

“Panic is processed from the primitive brain and increases the endorphins hormone. So, it is important to always consider what you are actually experiencing in the here and now,” says Dr Hendrickse. 

 

What is preferable to panic?

 

“Communication, communication, communication – the human connection is more important now than ever!,” says Dr Hendrickse. Focusing on what’s best for the community rather than just what might be best for the self appears to be an effective method to steer clear of a panic reaction.  

 

Dr Hendrickse explains that facing the pandemic, the outcome of panic is an “I” reality, whereas a “we” reality would be a far superior coping mechanism. “As mental health practitioners we are directed to see how we can connect people in order to support one another,” he adds. 

 

How to police the urge to panic 

 

The media is full of cautionary tales of unusual behaviour spurred by panic. Whether it’s the excessive stockpiling of toilet paper or the irrational spread of ludicrous fake news, the list of reasons we should avoid panicking are endless. So, how else can we prevent ourselves getting caught up in all the drama? 

 

Dr Hendrickse suggests exercising habits that bring us back to our senses, such as mindfulness. 

 

Yoga or meditation can help with mindfulness; “this can include adult colouring-in books or breathing exercises”, he adds.

 

Dr Hendrickse also suggests setting up support groups online if you’re isolated so that you can reconnect with others.

 

Ultimately, he says: “Stay with the facts but the most important thing is not to pass on the fear.” 

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