Mental Health Challenges: Is Panic Helpful in a Time of Crisis?

“Fear is reaction. Courage is a decision” – Winston Churchill

An interesting phenomenon over the last few weeks that we have seen as a result of Covid 19, or the novel strain of the coronavirus which has effected the globe, is the increase in the mental health affects from the virus, specifically in regard to panic and anxiety.

Although the effects of Covid-19 are still not fully understood, scientists are coming to some hypothesis about the epidemiology of the illness.  What we can see is that the existential risk factors grow the older the age of the patient.  According to findings from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control or the CDC the fatality rate was 14.8% in people 80 or older, likely reflecting the presence of other diseases, a weaker immune system, or simply worse overall health. By contrast, the fatality rate was 1.3% in 50-somethings, 0.4% in 40-somethings, and 0.2% in people 10 to 39.  These percentages could be much lower given that there are potentially huge amounts of undocumented cases due to people that show mild or no symptoms for the virus.

This is something extremely concerning, particularly for more vulnerable members of our communities, so how we deal with this crisis is extremely important for our ability to contain and manage it.  So with this in mind let’s now address some of the mental health impacts.

Panic and Anxiety are Contagious

When human beings “feel” out of control (in reality our perceived level of control differs greatly from our actual level of control and usually the perceived level is much less) we tend to become panicked and stressed.  With the novel coronavirus one of the most difficult aspects is that there is still much to learn about the virus and how it spreads which has contributed to a heightened level of panic and anxiety among the general population.

As we have observed in various group settings panic and anxiety are contagious.  Imagine a suitcase left alone in a train station with passersby all around.  If two people were to look at the suitcase and start running and screaming, the remaining individuals would be much more likely to be affected and also run from the suitcase even without evidence of something dangerous within the suitcase.

In the case of Covid 19, people have a much higher chance of “catching” a panic contagion the more they increase their attention to it through the consumption of media, television, smart phones etc. 

According to Dr. Todd Grande, the risk here is that information then has a value that we assign to it, meaning that what we do with this information is based on perception and not on factual evidence.

Mental health panic can cause a lot of pain and suffering and is also not helpful in leading important prevention efforts.

Some unwanted outcomes could be panic buying even though there is no indication of a lack of supplies.  Sadly in the city in which I live, Berlin, people are stealing facemasks and disinfection from the hospitals.  My local drugstore is completely out of many household items including soap, disinfectant and toilet paper. This is of course panic at it‘s worst, leaving the people on the frontlines and others in the community without the protection they need.  Here we can see how panic leads people to act irrationally and not in the best interests of the overall containment and recovery from this epidemic.

Another aspect of this kind of contagion is FOMO.  The fear of missing out can also lead to the spread of panic.  For example if someone’s neighbor starts buying lots of supplies and becomes stressed, a person is much more likely to wonder if this person knows something that they don’t know and assume that they probably do.  Copycat behavior is fairly common and more so now that we have so many more channels to observe what others are doing, not just in close proximity to us but around the globe.

Non-Treatment Compliance

There are reasonable precautions we can take without going overboard such as washing our hands, social distancing measures, avoiding people who have symptoms and not touching our faces (mouth, nose or eyes) but there will also be a predictable percentage of people that do not adhere to any precautions, what we refer to in mental health as “treatment compliance”.  For example in mental health about 15-50% of people suffering with major depressive disorder are non compliant with treatment, meaning dropping out before treatment ends, not completing homework, lack of consistency in appointments etc. Literally as I am writing this article a news report is being circulated about a young man with the coronavirus breaking his quarantine to attend a social event. Sadly, this is a perfect example of a mental state that leads to destructive behaviour.

Paranoid Thinking

We are also seeing a rise in paranoid thinking, which includes the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories and extreme skepticism. This is one of our big problems with social media, in that information can be spread without verification and when populations are in a paranoid mind state their ability to discern which information is valid and useful for them to know and which information isn’t is much lower.  

Isolating Behaviours

The last issue I will mention is persisting isolating behavior.  Although social distancing will be necessary to contain the outbreak, an ongoing feeling of dread might mean that people start to keep their distance from one another and perhaps not go out as much anymore.  The risk with this is that when we isolate, rather than help our mental states, it tends to make them worse.  We are more likely to self-soothe our loneliness with media consumption and we have no rational forces around us to help us mediate our more powerfully primitive psychological tendencies.  We also don’t allow for the opportunity for the rhythm of daily normalcy to help us regulate our emotions. As Dr. Grande points out, this is a real shame as sadly isolating behaviours are becoming more of a problem in society anyway.

In this article, it is clear that the mental health ramifications are serious and do threaten our ability to handle this crisis effectively and jointly.  I believe that we can respond appropriately and responsibly without falling into panic and despair.  As Winston Churchill said, “Fear is reaction. Courage is a reaction”

As always I am grateful to Dr. Todd Grande for his scientific insider approach to mental health topics and for inspiring this article. Please check out is videos to learn more about mental health topics.


Dr: Todd Grande:

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