The Psychology Behind the Coronavirus Panic & Why It Could Be Worse Than We Think

Amanda Caswell
March 16, 2020

Coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, is roughly one-900th the width of a human hair, highly contagious, and is rapidly spreading from person to person worldwide. People in over 60 countries have already been impacted. Unfortunately, because this virus is so new; doctors, researchers, and scientists are still in the dark when it comes to understanding how it spreads. Similar to the flu virus, there are four factors that determine whether or not you will get sick if you come in contact with someone who has the coronavirus. These include whether the person projects viral droplets on you via a sneeze, cough, or touching them after they do so; how close you get to the person; how much you touch your face; and how long you are near the person. Your personal health and age are also major factors.

washing hands for coronavirus

What’s a Viral Droplet?

We’re about to get into some unpleasant territory, but in order to get the facts straight; talking about mucus is a must. Viral droplets are from saliva or mucus that has been ejected from the nose or mouth as an individual sneezes or coughs. They can also be transmitted from someone laughing, singing, breathing, and yes, even talking. In most cases, they hit the ground or floor, but if the viral droplets from an infected person hit your mouth, nose, or eyes; there’s a higher chance of you getting the disease.

Even worse, the virus lasts on surfaces such as a keyboards, touch screens, and subway poles. Restroom faucets, library books, and bus seats have tested positive for the coronavirus as well. It’s why businesses and even the NYC subway system are announcing plans to stay safe. The MTA announced they will fully disinfect surfaces across the system every 72 hours.

Flu vs. Coronavirus

The symptoms of the coronavirus are so similar to the common cold or flu, you may not even know that someone is sick with coronavirus, including yourself. In fact, some people with the virus never even become ill at all. There is a growing number of cases of infected people without symptoms who are infecting others. Those with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, the sick, very young children, and pregnant women are the most at risk of catching the virus.

Panic Spreading Faster Than the Actual Virus

The outbreak of coronavirus is causing people to panic. Pharmacies are running out of hand sanitizer and face masks to the point where the Surgeon General is actually telling people to stop buying masks, stating that the shortage is a harmful risk to public health care professionals. The problem is, China is the world’s largest manufacturer of these masks with a reported capacity to produce approximately 20 million pieces a day. However, our domestic demand alone is upwards of 50 to 60 million per day.

The panic is even causing people to buy extreme amounts of toilet paper, despite authorities stressing there is no shortage of it. Panic buying and other similar behaviors happen because humans are not great at assessing risk. When they are scared, people use their emotions rather than logical analysis to evaluate dangers. Besides panic, catastrophizing is another unhealthy thinking pattern that is used instead of thinking about the facts and assessing the news from reliable sources.

Anxiety flourishes on uncertainty, and, as the coronavirus spreads throughout the world, we naturally have unanswered questions that make us feel scared and vulnerable. We wonder, “How soon will it be in my community?” and  “Am I at risk?” There’s no doubt that there is a national anxiety and a shared stress as we are all in a state of tremendous uncertainty. However, here’s the catch-22: The more you panic and become fearful, the more vulnerable you can become to viruses because stress negatively impacts your immune response.

We are All Impacted

You don’t have to be sick in bed with the actual virus to understand its impact. The coronavirus is worse than we know, which is why it is affecting everything from the stock market to major events. The recent Dow drop was the worst on record, sending shockwaves through the global economy. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, China is home to the largest market on earth, yet Chinese consumption and production have come to a screeching halt. Factories in China have closed, work opportunities are reduced, and stores are shuttered.

Shanghai Disney has closed indefinitely, museums and schools around the world have closed, flights have been cancelled, several cherry blossom festivals in Tokyo have been cancelled, and even here in the United States, Facebook and Vevo pulled out of one of the nation’s biggest music and film festivals (with a petition to cancel the festival completely.)

Xenophobia is at an All-Time High

From trains and subway cars to college campuses, the country has become crippled by fear amid the spreading coronavirus outbreak. Racist, discriminatory incidents, and insensitive remarks have been made towards the Chinese and Asian communities as the panic continues to hit the Chinese business sector. Fear of the deadly disease is driving people away from East Asian neighborhoods and singling out Asians (and those who appear Asian) as perpetrators of the disease.

Often when fear sets in, people tend to place irrational blame as a defense mechanism. Blame, often in the form of discrimination, comes in many ways such as the feelings of superiority, disgust, anger, hate, and fear. A person who blames another person or entire community feels falsely superior. Disgust is an emotion often felt from seeing another person as wrong. Feeling superior is also related to disgust because the person positions themselves as “good” and the other person as “bad.” Anger, hate, and fear are particularly irrational and unthinking emotions based on our animal instinct to attack in the face of danger. Most of all, those who blame often enjoy the feeling of being innocent, even though they fear that they will at some point be blamed.

Don’t Let Your Quality of Life Suffer

For those who are brushing off the coronavirus as hype or fear mongering, it’s important to understand both the physical and mental impacts it has on society.  While the sickness is very real and in fact, deadly, those who are losing revenue to their businesses and are living in fear of what’s to come are also suffering. As the world braces itself and waits for more information on the deadly disease, it is important to be vigilant and practice good hygiene such as coughing and sneezing into your elbow, regularly washing your hands, using hand sanitizer, and staying home if you are sick.

For those who are living in constant fear of the disease, losing sleep, having nightmares, and suffering from extreme paranoia about coronavirus, it might be time to seek help. A licensed professional can help you overcome your anxieties or OCD, through DBT, meditation, and discussing underlying fears you may have. The coronavirus is a serious physical disease that is impacting people around the world. While we can’t stop the virus, it shouldn’t stop us from living our lives.

Amanda Caswell

Amanda is a wellness writer & enthusiast with over 12 years experience writing in the industry. She has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from NYU. She is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American School of Nutrition & Personal Training. Amanda is also a celebrity publicist.

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