24th March 2020 0 Comments Human Insight

COVID-19: The Psychology of Panic and the Philosophy of Care

Black and white image of two hands touching

“I’m not too worried about it” a friend told me over a pint last week, “We’re young, we’re healthy, we’re going to be fine.”

In 2019, no one had heard of the new coronavirus. As it crept into Western media reports in January, it felt distant. Memes joked about the spread from Milan to Paris during fashion week – “was Covid-19 AW20’s hottest trend?” Even as the virus flared in Italy, young people were reported to have thrown house parties in infected areas.

By the 26th February 2020, the virus had infected individuals on every continent of the world bar Antarctica. The global response was strikingly ambivalent. Viral videos circulating the internet captured the pandemic’s polarised response. While spring breakers in Miami were refusing to let the coronavirus get in the way of their end of year celebrations, individuals were caught scrambling over packs of toilet paper in supermarkets in the UK.

The psychology of stress

“Fear is contagious,” admitted an article in the New Yorker, “when we see people go out of their way to protect themselves from disaster, no matter how unlikely, we don’t want to be the only ones left undefended.”

Panic is an evolutionary response, designed to protect us from danger. When we perceive a threat, the amygdala – the almond-shaped nub in the centre of the brain – expands, sending a signal to the hypothalamus that triggers a release of stress-hormones. It causes our body to turn off all processes not essential for survival – digestion, growth, reproduction – mobilising energy to our muscles, increasing our blood pressure and making our heart beat faster.

But panic can be counterproductive. Chronic stress kills neurons in the hippocampus and weakens the cables between neurons, impairing the formation and retrieval of long-term memory. As the hippocampus shrinks, “the opposite thing happens in the amygdala,” neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky explains; “stress feeds the amygdala. It actually gets bigger.” The swollen amygdala means that our brain is more alert to potential threats and more sensitive to the effects of stress. We feel continually on edge or anxious – a state known as hypervigilance.

“The end result is that we become more vulnerable to the very thing that’s killing us,” expounds science writer, Jonah Lehrer; we become more alert to the effects of stress, but less capable of combating it.

So as we adjust to our new reality, how can we resist emotional shutdown on one hand and apathy on the other?

we become more alert to the effects of stress, but less capable of combating it

The philosophy of collectivism 

“We can’t view the epidemic in terms of our personal risk,” stresses Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in a video interview released by the NHS, “we need to act collectively in a cooperative manner”.

Like a lot of global issues, the outbreak of COVID-19 calls for us to decentre ourselves, modifying our own behaviour for the good of the more vulnerable members of society. Being young, healthy and low-risk does not mean continuing to live life as before. Reducing and delaying transmission of the virus is dependent on the actions of individuals. Social distancing is a moral responsibility, not a personal choice.

Videos of China’s miraculous construction of two new hospitals in under two weeks led journalists to question whether Western societies were capable of such centralised, efficient action. Are we too individualistic to mobile ourselves for a greater good?

“We’ve been told for 50 years now that human beings are fundamentally selfish. It’s not true,” argues behavioural scientist,  Johanthan Haidt. “We may be 90% chimp, but we are 10% bee – ultrasocial beings able to enter the mindset of “one for all and all for one”.”

Our ability to make emotional connections with one another is integral to our own wellbeing. “We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of,” Robert Sapolsky explains. “We can actually feel comfort from the discovery that somebody on the other side of the planet is going through the same experience we are and feel, I’m not alone. We can even take comfort reading about a fictional character”.

“We may be 90% chimp, but we are 10% bee – ultrasocial beings able to enter the mindset of “one for all and all for one”.

The last of human freedoms

Helping others is not only altruistic but self-beneficial. Finding meaning in what we are doing counteracts the effects of glucocorticoids (a stress hormone), making us feel less anxious. This is reflected in advice given by Guo Jing, a 29-year old who has been living under quarantine in Wuhan. “If you can participate in some volunteer work this can alleviate the sense of powerlessness in the face of a huge disaster”, she suggests. “Caring for others, seeing their needs and doing what you can to help, is also a way of helping yourself.”

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl wrote about his experience living in a concentration camp through the Holocaust. He recalled that it was not the physically strongest who survived, but those who acted the most generously: “the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread”.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” he writes, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The current pandemic feels particularly difficult, as the need to distance ourselves to one another is contrary to human instinct, compelling us to stay together. But whilst we are physically held apart, the need to connect with another is more important than ever. Videos have circulated of individuals encouraging each other through song around the globe, shouting “Wuhan jiāyóu”, “Wuhan, stay strong”, from apartment windows in Wuhan, clanging pans and singing ballads across balconies in Naples.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” he writes, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“This is a worldwide epidemic; it’s not us against them, it’s all of us against this virus,” says Vanessa King, lead psychologist for Action for Happiness. “It’s a moment when we have to say: ‘we, as a world, are fighting this’”.

Whether it is responsibly deciding to self-isolate, picking up groceries for vulnerable neighbours or scheduling phone calls with an elderly acquaintance, care and cooperation are now paramount.

“The choices we make now — even tiny ones — will make every difference to how we feel about ourselves, and others, in the future,” explains psychologist Anouchka Grose; “Good relations, in this troubling new reality, are perhaps the most valuable thing we have.”

To feel sane in times of crisis, we must reconnect with each other, experiencing ourselves as belonging to something bigger, recognising that in our actions, we are responsible for others beyond ourselves.

“It’s a moment when we have to say: ‘we, as a world, are fighting this’”.


Share: