During a pandemic, public anxiety spreads faster than the disease, as people begin to experience symptoms widely publicized as being associated with the virus. This is true even when the only “exposure” they have had is through their television sets or computer screens.
Although psychosomatic illness is not physically contagious, it is emotionally infectious both personally and vicariously when shared with loved ones or through social media. Thankfully, research addresses how to combat imaginary illness, freeing up more of your time to protect yourself from the real thing.
Masked travelers are becoming a more familiar sight at airports and transit stations worldwide, as people continue to travel despite the coronavirus outbreak and an increasing number of restrictions. This visual imagery fuels anxiety.
Jonathan Tepperman recognizes in an article in Foreign Policy how public response outweighs actual risk.[i] He notes that panic-buying “end-of-days accessories” (famously including toilet paper and peanut butter) negatively impacts the economy as well as our daily lives—without doing anything to fight the virus.
But amidst what has now been officially classified as a global pandemic, people are prone to suffer personally as well as economically—regardless of whether or not they actually contract the virus.
Social Contagion Without Contact
Michael Wheaton et al. (2012) researched public response to pandemic panic in an article entitled “Psychological Predictors of Anxiety in Response to the H1N1 (Swine Flu) Pandemic.”[ii]
They recognized what is probably no surprise to anyone following the public response in the wake of a health crisis, that pandemics create high amounts of publicity as well as increased anxiety and behavioral changes.
Studying the psychological processes accompanying anxiety related to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009–2010, they found swine flu-related anxiety to be common in the sample of college students they surveyed. They found significant predictors of swine-flu anxiety to be fears of becoming contaminated, health-related anxiety, and sensitivity to disgust.
Wheaton et al. report that the outbreak they studied was often compared to the “Spanish flu” outbreak of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people, qualifying as the most deadly pandemic in our history. But such heavy media coverage can be both a blessing and a curse. Wheaton et al. note that knowledge of potential contagion could promote healthy habits designed to decrease the risk of spreading disease. But they also note that it could lead to public fear and mass hysteria—which they recognize was experienced in 2005 during the avian flu outbreak where increased television watching was linked with increased fear of illness.
Wheaton et al. cite prior research establishing how a percentage of a British sample in the early stages of the H1N1 outbreak recounted a significant amount of anxiety as a result of the outbreak, which was linked to preventative measures such as sanitizing doorknobs and handwashing. But elevated anxiety levels were also associated with non-productive measures such as avoiding crowds, public transportation, and missing work.
They use this comparison to explain that although a certain level of anxiety in response to illness can have a positive impact on protective behavior, for some people, excessive anxiety can cause unwarranted distress and avoidance behaviors, which can negatively impact daily functioning.
Wheaton et al. further note that what they describe as “excessive safety behaviors,” such as repeated instances of seeking medical advice and excessive handwashing behavior, can impair daily functioning even further. But there is more. Some people watching the news will convince themselves they have the disease.
False Positives: The Danger of Self-Diagnosis
Widely publicized outbreaks result in widespread self-diagnoses. Potential symptoms, either real or imagined, fuel increased fear of having contracted whatever disease is being discussed. Wheaton et al. corroborate this reality by noting that outbreaks, which are highly publicized can lead to “mass psychogenic illness,” where healthy people misinterpret non-serious bodily sensations such as feeling short of breath or dizzy, as evidence that they have become sick. They note that misdiagnosis can cause hypervigilance, increased anxiety, and extreme safety behaviors that can negatively impact society when they miss work or overuse medical resources.
Be Connected Not Contagious
As with any publicized outbreak, this too shall pass. Knowledge is power but hope springs eternal. Balancing information with inspiration will help individuals who feel overwhelmed and hopeless during pandemic panic to step back and view the bigger picture. Disinfect but do not disengage. Social media, skype, and the telephone (remember those?) can allow you to remain protected, but connected.
[ii] Wheaton, Michael G., Jonathan S. Abramowitz, Noah C. Berman, Laura E. Fabricant, and Bunmi O. Olatunji. 2012. “Psychological Predictors of Anxiety in Response to the H1N1 (Swine Flu) Pandemic.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 36 (3): 210–18. doi:10.1007/s10608-011-9353-3.