When do we really need to panic?

Dealing with the coronavirus : Fear can help, but panic is harmful

How can we get the coronavirus under better emotional control? Elissa Epel, professor, writes about it herein the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Sonja Entringer, who translated the text from the American, is a professor at the Institute for Medical Psychology at Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin. Both research, partly in a joint project, how stress experiences are embedded biologically.

Most of us have never experienced a pandemic. There is much controversy these days as to what level of worry and panic is appropriate. Scientific findings from stress research offer orientation.

Fear drives us to set something in motion together, to have clear thoughts and to do what is necessary for the common good. Panic, on the other hand, is highly contagious, puts us in irrational and catastrophic thinking and drives us to unsocial human behavior that can exacerbate our crisis - greed, hamster purchases, panicked flight.

It is important to understand the difference between fear and panic so that we can find the right balance.

We now have a unique opportunity to flatten the infection curve to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, and a moderate fear of the coronavirus can help us with that. It encourages appropriate behavior - washing hands, canceling events, staying at home.

Evolutionary fear helps survive

Preventive behavior, in turn, reduces fear. This evolutionary fear and stress reaction and the resulting behavior has ensured the survival of mankind throughout history. However, some people still seem unconcerned about the current situation - with the result that instructions are ignored that are meant to protect others.

But what level of fear is appropriate? We don't have to take the restriction of our social contacts very seriously right now as if rather because our lives and above all that of the elderly and other vulnerable people depend on it.

The media inundates us with worst-case scenario predictions and reports from Italian hospitals that are terrifying and remind us of the lack of medical resources needed to prevent people with Covid-19 from dying of lung failure. This easily leads to our fear of overestimating the real threat and underestimating our ability to cope with it.

Background about the coronavirus:

The more time we spend consuming media, the more likely it is that we will feel overwhelmed and develop long-term post-traumatic symptoms, as we learned from studies by Roxane Silver and colleagues on the psychological effects of disasters such as the Boston Marathon attack or the attacks in September 2011 in the US know.

Right now it is important to stick to the facts of some reliable sources such as the Robert Koch Institute in Germany or the Centers for Disease Control in the USA.

Try to limit your daily media exposure to a maximum of twice a day, and focus on productive activities as much as possible for the rest of the time. The panic related to the coronavirus presents us with major social problems in addition to the medical challenges. It can't get out of hand.

Panic and stress limit the immune system

Since we are in the cold and flu season, many of us have symptoms accordingly. Panic increases the sensitivity to the perception of physical symptoms, which in turn feel particularly bad when we suspect that it is Covid-19.

In addition, a persistently high level of psychological stress can limit our immune system and thus suppress our ability to fight viruses. In addition, in a state of panic, the activity of our prefrontal cortex, a structure in the brain that is responsible for rational thinking and weighing, is inhibited. Our actions are primarily shaped by the emotional part of the brain, which results in irrational and ill-considered decisions and reactions.

In all countries of the world we are currently observing these predictable human behavior under panic, such as buying hamsters, an increase in aggressiveness towards our fellow human beings and xenophobia. The human response to threats that are supposed to protect us can quickly get out of hand.

Fear drives herd behavior: Instead of making a rational decision based on data, fear drives us to follow the herd. It explains why the Dow Jones index hit a twelve-year low on March 9 and recovered the next day. On March 11, he fell again over the troubling comments made by President Trump on the coronavirus.

Panic buying only temporarily reduces anxiety

Herding behavior quickly led us into recession. We have become victims of the "panic impulsiveness" and are now feeling its painful economic consequences.

In difficult times, we tend to respond to others with competition, greed, and excessive accumulation of limited resources. This creates problems for the common good (in economic psychology one speaks of "tragedy of the community").

Panic buying can temporarily reduce anxiety - "I'm safe, I have 20 bottles of disinfectant and ten boxes of masks" - and we feel like we're in control of the situation. But real security only comes about through protective measures and distancing behavior, and through mutual support.

Examples of absurd herd behavior are spread daily on social media, such as fighting over the last pack of toilet paper. In fact, there is virtually no supply bottleneck, not even in Italy, and toilet paper is still being produced.

The only problem is that the supermarkets cannot keep up with filling the shelves due to the hamster purchases. If we all pull ourselves together and limit our shopping behavior to moderate quantities, we can all together flatten the curve of congestion and bottlenecks in the shops. We need to contain the panic over this and encourage one another to act sensibly.

We can manage to flatten the curve

To live in a stressful environment, even for months, is actually not a problem for us humans. From an evolutionary point of view, we are well prepared for it. But it becomes a problem for us when the constant exaggerated emotional reactions get under the skin and lead to physiological changes.

Uncontrollable, chronic stress can weaken our immune response (a focus of our research). We would now like to have a quick way to easily avert intense fear and panic.

What insights from stress research help us? First of all, it helps to accept that we cannot change the situation, we have to accept this new reality and surrender to it.

But we can all do our part because we control our personal little ecosystem around us. The more we accept and adhere to measures such as social distance, the faster we can flatten the curve, the faster we can return to normal.

In China, the tough measures have halted the epidemic. We can do that too. Fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable is inevitable. But irrational fear and panic are far worse than careful awareness of our fears.

Accept and control emotions

Let us face this fear every day, every moment anew. Mindfulness means becoming aware of your experiences, thoughts and emotions and then switching from an emotional mode to a friendly and reflective observer mode, for example by saying to yourself, “This is what it feels like to live in a pandemic. "

This helps us to accept and control our emotions. Be good with yourself, tell yourself that fear is normal and almost inevitable in the moment, and that people all over the world are sharing the same experience with you.

This virus causes us to focus on the primal human that is common to all of us - our innate stress response, which is important to protect our lives, and our love and compassion to protect others.

Be grateful - for the little things that you currently enjoy and to those who keep the supermarkets running and who save lives in our hospitals every day.

We are all exposed to this pandemic together. One of the most effective ways to reduce stress is emotional affection and social support.

There are many ways to help and stand up for others. When we help others, we feel better. Despite avoiding direct social contact, we can provide social support via telephone and video connections. We can offer to get food or medicine for elderly neighbors, friends and relatives who cannot or should not leave the house.

The number of ever-expanding virtual neighborhood networks based on social media is already impressive. This is a time when we define ourselves as a community, where we have the opportunity to strengthen our social cohesion and live our core values.

It is not an easy time ahead of us, there will be suffering and death around us too, but together we can rise above our panic reactions and fight this malicious virus as best we can.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page