Mar 292020

The coronavirus outbreak arose in late 2019 in China and spread in 2020. Spreading faster than the virus has been anxiety, panic, and fear-based responses. Consequently, every day sees a new rule or change in policy, even when such an immediate reaction is not warranted. Fear is an evolved emotional response occurring when threat or danger is perceived, motivating adaptive responses. Human intelligence has intensified threat and danger related thoughts, amplifying the emotional responses. Worsening the situation is contagion, and I am not referring to biological spread of the virus. If we see another person reacting with fear it triggers a feeling of fear: there must be a threat because that person is reacting with fear. Our social evolution has left us vulnerable to contagion.

To this point in time, fear and its amplification—anxiety—appears to have taken a greater toll on people overall than has the virus. As a psychiatrist, I have noted intense anxiety not only in patients but those I know and observe outside of my practice. Many people fully retreat avoiding walking in areas largely devoid of people, further enhancing the perception of threat and danger. Undoubtedly, lower mood and even depression is on the rise related to the extreme isolation and anxiety. Hence, the mental health impact due to the spread of fear and anxiety has outstripped the impact of the virus! Now some might respond that the virus is killing people. Yes, but what the early peer-reviewed evidence indicates is that most of these people are elderly with significant medical illness, a segment of the population that is highly vulnerable to severe outcomes from upper respiratory tract infections. My mother contracted such an illness while in a nursing home and passed away from it, although the underlying medical illnesses were really what took her. These unfortunate individuals are always vulnerable to upper respiratory illnesses such as from viruses and bacteria.

A horrible consequence of this excessive anxiety and even panic response, whipped up by traditional and social media, is that rational thought processes, planning, and responses are sacrificed. In crisis circumstances, it is prudent to take a look at the relevant pluses and minuses, and act accordingly. Covid 19 to date primarily takes the elderly and ill; it is not equivalent to the swine flu of 1918 that was killing young and healthy individuals, nor is it turning people into zombies. Given this apparent reality, a logical reasoned course would have been to protect those vulnerable from the outset, such as screening anyone who has contact with a physically vulnerable person, and ensuring that only screened individuals interact with them. Instead the response has generally been irrational and fear-based, such as focusing on extensive isolation of those not that vulnerable to serious outcomes, with day-to-day changes in policies and rules as opposed to a few days to a week to adapt. This reactionary process only serves to ramp up fear, and lacks sense. For example, blanket one size fits all approaches such as treating flights from all destinations, even those with no reported cases, as a major threat while ignoring train and bus travel. Also, discouraging people to get out and walk in areas that are not congested, although few areas are crowded nowadays. Walking and maintaining a reasonable distance from others has an extremely low chance of spreading the virus, and the vast majority of those able to walk are not that vulnerable to serious consequences. With the mental health benefits of walking, being active, and seeing others enjoying this experience anxiety is countered. In other words, the minuses are low and the pluses high.

My suggestion as a psychiatrist, and also someone who has engaged in adventure activities such as backcountry skiing and scuba diving, is to resist the temptation to react with anxiety and panic. Counter the negative threat and danger perceptions, and weigh in the pluses and minuses of different courses of action. Also, appreciate the contagion impact, and realize that just because someone is reacting with fear and/or panic it does not mean there is a threat. Maybe in our ancestral hunting-gathering group history a fear response indicated a predator, but not now. Applying humor which is a mature defense consisting of placing a lighter spin on things can be a major asset in these heavy times. A humorous anecdote comes from a person I know who works in a newsroom, where a sign indicates, “Report every story as if it’s World War III.” The newsroom staff are getting so sick and tired of having to report the WWIII coronavirus narrative that they are hoping for a murder, stabbing, or cat stuck in a tree, just for a break from the repetition! An additional and easy way to counter the escalating fear and even panic, is to absorb yourself in a positive focus as the absorption helps negativity recede. Who knows, when online video watching is exhausted maybe picking up a book and reading. Also, resist media exposure as it is designed to ramp up fear responses!