by Marcia Sirota MD

The hysteria we are feeling lately over the arrival in North America of the novel coronavirus reminds me of the fears that we had around the SARS crisis in Toronto in 2003 and the Ebola virus in 2014. If you lived through either of these times, you could probably recall how freaked out people were during these outbreaks.

Many Canadians over-reacted to situations that turned out to be not nearly as bad as they’d thought.

With the latest infectious outbreak appearing to originate in Wuhan, China, some people are once again falling into hysteria. Some are even beginning to vilify people of Chinese origin. In Canada, Chinese New Year banquets are being canceled, and acts of racism are starting to happen.

Coronavirus Anxiety and the Blame Game

In psychological terms, when people are frightened of something that they don’t fully understand and when they feel a lack of control over such a situation, they want to blame someone, looking for a scapegoat against whom to direct their fear and anger. The problem is that acting out against Chinese-Canadians or anyone, for that matter, has no effect on the actual spread of the virus or on keeping anyone safe.

The media is a double-edged sword when it comes to disseminating information. It can help update us on the latest news, but there’s always the question of fear-mongering. It’s hard to know the accuracy of the information that we’re receiving and how much misinformation is spread around.

One thing that is clear right now is that the threat of the virus appears extremely small in North America. We count only with a handful of cases identified so far, and to date, no-one in this region has succumbed to the virus. The lessons learned from the SARS outbreak in Toronto prepared Canada for this new outbreak. It appears that so far, everyone involved is doing everything right.

Coronavirus, Germaphobia and the Media

Another aspect of human psychology is the tendency to panic over new infectious diseases.

Eugene Beresin, writing in Psychology Today about mass hysteria around the Ebola virus, argues that the media plays a significant role in amplifying our fears about such outbreaks.

According to Mr. Beresin, “we as a society think about germs a lot. Hollywood knows we think about germs a lot.” He adds that movies provide “fertile ground for our imaginations when real diseases emerge. Sometimes, the tail seems to be wagging the hysterical dog. The news coverage starts to look like the movies themselves.

People often are driven by their emotions more than by logic and reason. Many of us tend to indulge our fears rather than focusing on the facts. But the reality is that we still don’t know enough about this new infection for us to be indulging in our worst fears.

It’s Time to Learn About the Coronavirus, Not to Panic:

Although the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global public health emergency, it’s still unclear how transmissible the virus is, and what the actual mortality rate is. Now is the time to be gathering more data, not to be freaking out.

Anxiety is the number one mental health issue for Canadians, and it affects how they view a variety of stressors. According to Statista, in 2018, approximately 41% of adults between the ages of 18-29, 36% of adults between the ages of 30-44, and 31% of adults between the ages of 45-59 suffered from an anxiety disorder. When any new stressor, such as an infectious disease outbreak, comes along, people who suffer from anxiety are far more likely to over-react.

People with anxiety want to feel a sense of control over their world, and they become distressed when they feel “out of control.” The problem is that we can’t control anything. All we can do when dealing with a possible pandemic or any other stressful situation is to make informed, rational decisions given the information we have at the moment.

Tools for Managing Anxiety

When I work with psychotherapy patients who have problems with anxiety, I always remind them that worrying doesn’t protect them from anything; it doesn’t prepare them for anything, and it doesn’t prevent anything from happening. All it does is make them feel miserable as if the bad thing they fear had already happened, even when it hadn’t happened and might never happen. Another thing I tell my patients is that they can combat anxiety by developing trust in themselves and in others.

When it comes to infectious outbreaks, I remind my patients to trust that they’re able to learn the facts of the situation and then do what’s necessary to take the best possible care of themselves and their loved ones. They also need to trust that the people in positions of responsibility are doing everything they should protect the public.

We all Need to Calm Down

While we’re still in the early, information-gathering stages of this new outbreak, we need to recognize that our anxiety may be getting the better of us.

We might be suffering more from our panic than we’ll ever suffer from the disease. Instead of going to the worst-case scenario, we need to focus on the facts, not the fear-mongering.

We’re going to learn a lot more about the current outbreak over the next few weeks and months.  With this added information, we’ll be empowered to do what we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. In the meantime, let’s all heed the words of the great bard, Taylor Swift, taken somewhat out of context but still wholly applicable to this case when she says, “you need to calm down.”

About the Author

Marcia Sirota MD FRCP(C) is a board-certified psychiatrist, that does not ascribe to any one theoretical school. Rather, she has integrated her education and life experiences into a unique approach to the practice of psychotherapy. She considers herself a realist with a healthy measure of optimism. Sign up here for her free monthly wellness newsletter.  Listen here to her latest podcast.