Societal Panic

“Panic is highly contagious, especially in situations when nothing is known and 

everything is in flux.” – Stephen King

Have you read the papers or checked your Instagram account recently?  Well, if you’re like me (I don’t listen to the news or read the papers, and I never check my Instagram), you may have been able to avoid much of the media frenzy over the spread of coronavirus, or COVID -19, but the recent wave of panic is making its way around the globe and is hard to escape. 

We all see it.

As of March 6th, over twelve major international tech conferences have been canceled around the world, causing an estimated economic loss of $1 billion. The stock market is tanking, people are afraid to leave their homes, and many public events have been canceled. With no vaccine in the immediate future, people are afraid that this is just the beginning. Stockpiling shopping has become normal in Singapore and Hong Kong, but has also started in the US, according to Costco. Stores in Europe and Australia are suffering toilet paper shortages – with customers fighting over the dwindling supply.  

I live in Israel, where as of today, nearly 100,000 people are in quarantine, non-Israelis from a dozen countries are not allowed to enter the country, and many flights to and from Israel have been canceled. Israel’s national airline, ELAL, is about to lay-off 1000 employees, and people are starting to worry about their future.  

And when we read or hear the endless headlines, blog posts, or tweets, it impacts each one of us emotionally — even physically. It’s unavoidable. I realize that the more I write about this, the more anxious I am feeling.   

This blog isn’t meant to educate you on the coronavirus (but please, do seek out official sites for the latest information.)  Instead, it’s actually a fascinating example of how panic, specifically collective panic, has an effect on us all.  How does panic spread through society, and in this case, globally? How does it affect us and impact our daily decision-making? Is it a good thing, causing us to be cautious, for example;  or a bad thing, spreading unnecessary fear and anxiety that can turn into mass hysteria?

Anxiety and panic are on the rise all over the world. I believe a good part of this comes from living with a constant barrage of 24/7 news, being exposed to a variety of media sources — real and fake –and social media, which has a tendency to blow everything out of proportion.

Global panic thrives on uncertainty and anxiety, which is mostly played and repeated millions of times throughout the day around the world. How does that affect us and impact our daily decision-making? First, it causes us to panic on an individual level, manifesting itself in a state of mind that can trigger physiological symptoms like intense fear often accompanied by thoughts that something terrible is about to happen.  

When the threat is real, panic triggers the “fight or flight” response to help us cope and deal with the threat.  In the case of coronavirus, this means being cautious and taking precautions – precautions that are excellent, advisable and positive, such as hand-washing, for example. 

Societal Panic… How does it affect us?

At the same time, the body’s same “fight or flight” response can cause us to break down, make irrational decisions, and have our daily, “rational” self weakened by the same impulses that inspire caution. When we suffer from overexertion, fatigue, distraction, our response will cause the emotional brain to ‘freak out’ sooner. There’s no way to determine the seriousness of the threat and how to defend the body in a potential attack. When the signaling process of the brain malfunctions, it becomes impossible to determine whether the threat is real or perceived. Our brain turns into a pressure cooker, and because the part of the brain that experiences fear is overwhelmed, the pressure cooker malfunctions and explodes, i.e the body produces physiological symptoms.

 So what can we do to control feelings of anxiety or panic and filter out the noise? 

Here’s a list of tips that will assist you to effectively deal with today’s stressors. Most of my suggestions may seem rather simple, but they are super effective.

Let’s start with Ten Simple Steps that support the calming of what I call the physical flight/fight/freeze mechanism of the brain. Because when we are well-rested and balanced, our emergency system goes off less frequently.

  • Get enough sleep  – at least 7.5 hours a night.  
  • Drink 2+ liters of water a day.   When we are dehydrated nothing functions well.
  • Eat a balanced diet that works with your body’s needs.
  • Exercise 3 times a week for 40+ mins 
  • Enjoy time with friends/family
  • Unplug!  Spend at least one hour each day unplugged from all devices. 
  • Pray/Meditate/Practice mindfulness each day. Many studies show how this supports the flight/fight/freeze system.
  • For the rational side of your brain, don’t forget to: Think positive.  This too shall pass.  I will be fine.
  • Create a positive intention with goals and focus on them.  It is always more effective to direct your energy somewhere where it will make a positive difference.
  • Relax and reset yourself. We all know that the outside world will do whatever it does, but how you take things in is always up to you.  You are a powerful creator and you have the ability to change things.  

Coronavirus is the “social panic” of today, but the lessons we can learn for our own lives apply to so many different scenarios, although not all on this scale. When a department of our company has layoffs, it is a disruption to the entire workplace. When there is a significant and surprising change in our family, there is a “group panic” dynamic that also sets in, and can similarly impact our neural-emotional responses. 

As we all find the most productive and rational ways to respond to this current health crisis, I invite and challenge you to do three things differently this week.  Use it as an opportunity to measure your own self-care response to “societal panic.” 

Track it and then write about the difference you experienced. Send me a note.  I would love to hear from you! Remember,  we are more powerful when we change together.

P.S. For a more clinical explanation check out The Neurobiology of Anxiety Disorders: Brain Imaging, Genetics, and Psychoneuroendocrinology