The hysteria we’ve been feeling lately over the arrival in North America of the novel coronavirus reminds me of the fears that we had around the SARS crisis in Toronto in 2003 and the Ebola virus in 2014.
If you lived through either of these times you can probably recall how freaked out people were during these outbreaks. Many Canadians over-reacted to situations that turned out to be not nearly as bad as they’d thought.
With the latest infectious outbreak appearing to originate in Wuhan, China, some people are once again falling into hysteria. Some are even beginning to vilify people of Chinese origin. In Canada, Chinese New Year banquets are being cancelled and acts of racism are starting to happen.
In psychological terms, when people are frightened of something that they don’t fully understand and when they feel a lack of control over such a situation, they want to blame someone, looking for a scapegoat against whom to direct their fear and anger. The problem is that acting out against Chinese-Canadians or anyone, for that matter, has no effect on the actual spread of the virus or on keeping anyone safe.
The media is a double-edged sword when it comes to disseminating information. It can be helpful in updating us on the latest news but there’s always the question of fear-mongering. It’s hard to know the accuracy of the information that we’re receiving and how much misinformation is being spread around.
One thing that is clear right now is that the threat of the virus appears extremely small in North America. There have been only a handful of cases identified so far and to date, no-one in this region has succumbed to the virus. The lessons learned from the SARS outbreak in Toronto seem to have prepared Canada for this new outbreak and it appears that so far, everyone involved is doing everything right.
Another aspect of human psychology is the tendency to panic over new infectious diseases. Eugene Beresin, writing in Psychology Today about mass hysteria around the Ebola virus argues that the media plays a major role in amplifying our fears about such outbreaks.
According to Mr. Beresin, “we as a society think about germs a lot. Hollywood… knows we think about germs a lot.” He adds that movies provide “fertile ground for our imaginations when real diseases emerge. In fact, sometimes the tail seems to be wagging the hysterical dog. The news coverage starts to look like the movies themselves.”
People often are driven by their emotions more than by logic and reason. Many of us have a tendency to indulge our fears rather than focusing on the facts but the fact is that we still don’t know enough about this new infection for us to be indulging our worst fears.
Although the World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus a global public health emergency, it’s still unclear how transmissible the virus is and what the actual mortality rate is. Now is the time to be gathering more data, not to be freaking out.
Anxiety is the number one mental health issue for Canadians and it affects how they view a variety of stressors. According to Statista, in 2018 approximately 41% of adults between the ages of 18-29, 36% of adults between the ages of 30-44 and 31% of adults between the ages of 45-59 suffered from an anxiety disorder. When any new stressor, such as an infectious disease outbreak comes along, people who suffer from anxiety are far more likely to over-react.
People with anxiety want to feel a sense of control over their world and they become distressed when they feel “out of control”. The problem is that we can’t really control anything. All we can do when dealing with a possible pandemic or any other stressful situation is to make informed, rational decisions given the information we have in the moment.
When I work with psychotherapy patients who have problems with anxiety, I always remind them that worrying doesn’t protect them from anything; it doesn’t prepare them for anything, and it doesn’t prevent anything from happening. All it does is make them feel miserable; as if the bad thing they fear had already happened, even when it hadn’t happened and might never happen.
Another thing I tell my patients is that they can combat anxiety by developing trust in themselves and in others. When it comes to infectious outbreaks, I remind my patients to trust that they’re able to learn the facts of the situation and then do what’s necessary to take the best possible care of themselves and their loved ones. They also need to trust that the people in positions of responsibility are doing everything they should in order to protect the public.
While we’re still in the early, information-gathering stages of this new outbreak, we need to recognize that our anxiety may be getting the better of us. We might be suffering more from our panic than we’ll ever suffer from the disease. Instead of going to the worst-case scenario, we need to focus on the facts, not the fear-mongering.
We’re going to learn a lot more about the current outbreak over the next few weeks and months, and with this added information we’ll be empowered to do what we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. In the meantime, let’s all heed the words of the great bard, Taylor Swift, taken somewhat out of context but still wholly applicable to this case when she says, “you need to calm down.”