A Psychologist’s Perspective on the Coronavirus


NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA— This is a scary time in our country’s history, and when people are scared they may engage in irrational behavior.

The coronavirus pandemic is wide-reaching and affects all major parts of our society. It is indeed stressful, as the world comes to grips with a new sense of normality. As people deal with the outbreak, there are more examples of what people are calling, “mass hysteria.” However, hysteria is an antiquated term, stemming from the Greek word for the uterus and from a misogynistic view, hysteria was once seen as something that only could affect women. The proper term according for what our society is experiencing according to Sarah Black, a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of New Orleans’ psychology department, is mass panic. Like the coronavirus itself, mass panic is equally as contagious. .

“I’ve noticed myself feeling self-conscious about behaviors like coughing and sneezing for example.  Fear fuels the panic.  I think a really good example of this and it sounds kind of silly is our current toilet paper shortage. In these moments I think people feel helpless and they want to grasp on to whatever it is they can control in the face of this thing that is essentially uncontrollable.”

Mass panic from terrifying events is nothing new in the world. After the attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII, panic ensued in the United States that Japan would retaliate again. The result was the forcing of Asian-American families into concentration camps in California. Another example was much earlier during the 1600’s, during the Salem Witch Trials fear and panic resulted in women being burned at the stake. Black says that fear and panic can be the source of terrible reactions, “another thing that comes to mind is all of the lootings during Hurricane Katrina. A terrifying situation leads them to behave in unpredictable ways. In some ways, it feels like the social rules have been thrown off and some people decide to react as if there are not rules at all. The biggest problem during these trying times is that when we are in a state of physical and physiological fear, we are much less able to solve problems.”

Black believes that the nation is in a balancing act. We shouldn’t minimize the coronavirus 19 threat but we also shouldn’t allow ourselves to panic. These are two extremes of the spectrum. The goal is to manage fear in the middle of our emotions and actions.

Fear of the unknown is indeed scary but in this day and age, we have something that makes dealing with it in a sensible way challenging… social media. Black says that social media can be a wonderful tool to help keep us socially and mentally healthy during this time where people feel isolated. However social media can be very dangerous in terms of spreading false information and leading people away from reliable information outlets.

With many of our routines severely altered, we have lots of time to think about how scary the coronavirus is. Psychologist Sarah Black recommends reconnecting yourself with hobbies such as reading and watching movies and also using social media to frequently engage with our loved ones. Skyping would be a wonderful tool at this time. Black says to not let yourself fall into unhealthy ways of dealing with fear, such as addiction. We should regularly engage in conversation that is not coronavirus related.

In the end, the best medicine to help prevent the spread of panic is to remember that although our communities may be in a state of social isolation, we are not alone!

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