Fear Contagion in the Time of the Coronavirus

While we are currently facing a coronavirus pandemic that is spreading every day, another thing that is spreading is fear contagion. Similar to the phenomenon that prevents people from going to concerts, movie theaters, shopping malls, or even schools when news reports come in about a shooting, fear contagion around the coronavirus has most Americans “hunkering down.” During this time of uncertainty, we must use fear as a tool to promote rational thinking and precautionary measures as we work towards protecting ourselves from contracting the coronavirus. 

Fear of the Coronavirus

The coronavirus has brought out the worst fears in millions of people. Businesses are worried about laying people off and scared about the financial fallout of having to shut down. People are afraid for their health, as well as for the health of their family and friends. Some are also scared about having to be locked down in their own house for weeks or being cut off from others for long periods. Escalating fear like this can lead to anxiety and depression if it is not kept in check. 

Responding with Fear When in Danger

Fear contagion is defined as experiencing fear as a direct result of watching or hearing someone else’s fear, even if you don’t necessarily know why they are scared, to begin with. Imagine that you are at the mall and you see a group of people running. When you see the look of fear on their faces, you end up running too, even though you may not see the danger for yourself. This is because your brain is hardwired to respond to threats in your environment. Anything you see, smell or hear that signals the presence of danger automatically triggers your survival responses, causing you to freeze for a moment, and then try to escape. 

The amygdala is responsible for responding to threats by receiving sensory information and detecting stimuli that correspond with danger. Then, the amygdala communicates with other areas of the brain, coming up with ways to defend the body. These outcomes are called fight-or-flight responses.

Detecting Other People’s Survival Reactions

People are very sensitive to panic and fear expressed by those around them. There is a brain structure called the anterior cingulate cortex that connects the right and left brain hemispheres. When you watch another person in fear, this brain structure lights up. Another person’s fear travels from the anterior cingulate cortex to the amygdala, where defense responses are set off. Studies have shown that social transmission of fear is more common in people who are related or belong to the same group, compared to strangers. Fear contagion can transmit defense responses across an entire species. 

The Fear Contagion Today

When everyone watches the news or reads social media posts about those who have been harmed or killed by the coronavirus, it sends them into a panic. Mass panic attacks like this often take place at public events, such as concerts or sporting events. When fear is triggered in a crowd, you do not have time to see if what someone thinks they heard is accurate. Your instincts are to run with everyone else. People spread their fear to each other, infecting each person as fast as a virus can. Fear contagion does not require physical contact with others. Terrifying images and information can be enough to scare the masses. Seeing the same news bulletins and images over and over again can be hard to escape. Even if you turn off the news, your peers most likely will report to you what they saw. 

Fear as a Tool for Better Decision-Making

We are in the midst of “uncertain times” with this coronavirus pandemic because no one knows if their businesses will survive or if money will be lost in the stock market, for example. When situations are uncertain, we tend to freeze and make impulsive decisions based on instinct. However, if we allow ourselves to feel fear instead of running from it, we give ourselves time to pause, reflect, and make a thought out decision, accordingly. It is best not to make impulsive decisions during times of anxiety and unclear thinking. Hold off on important life decisions until they can be made from a rational mindset instead of an emotional one. You do not want to do anything that you will regret later. While your emotions may be running high right now, this outbreak can be an opportunity to exercise your fear and patience.

How to Prevent a Fear Contagion 

There is no way to prevent fear from occurring. Everyone is afraid of something. It is important to make sure that you have control over that fear to prevent your anxiety levels from going up. It helps if you are in the presence of a calm and confident person to tell you that everything will be fine. It also helps when that person is a parent or a caretaker that you depend on to help you. Information on danger and safety needs to be given to all, with clear instructions on what measures to take. Knowing the facts will make you feel more at ease, reducing the urge to go out and make absurd panic purchases. Being armed with knowledge also supports your ability to take care of yourself appropriately, should you begin to experience any symptoms. Surround yourself with people who make you feel safe instead of invoking intense fear in you. While fear can be contagious, love and support can be contagious too.

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