Monday, 30th October 2017

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Steps to take to fight panic

While it is natural to worry about the pandemic creeping across the world, anxiety increases your vulnerability to infection

  • Published 24.03.20, 11:30 PM
  • Updated 24.03.20, 11:30 PM
  • 3 mins read
We must not do certain things — such as panic buy face masks, stockpile food and essentials — so that other people are not deprived (Shutterstock)

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has become extremely stressful for some people. Fear and anxiety about an uncertain contagion is quite natural as the human brain is not wired to tolerate uncertainty; it is used to be alert to any threat. After all, our minds evolved from cave ancestors to worry: we are supposed to focus on doom and gloom, we ruminate over it, trying to analyse the situation, strategise and learn new survival skills.

But the pitfall of the primitive brain is that when we are excessively stressed we create cortisol, a steroid hormone and a built-in alarm system that perpetuates stress. Too much cortisol also compromises our immune system and the capacity to fight the possible onslaught of the virus.

The real problem is that when we are anxious, we tend to treat the uncertainty as a catastrophe, overthink and blow it out of proportion. We typically want to have more control over the situation, yet so much is not in our hands. What we tend to forget is that there are certain things we can choose to do now to improve the situation — such as isolate ourselves at home to save the more vulnerable population, follow basic hygiene such as washing hands frequently, covering the mouth and nose when we cough or sneeze, and maintaining social distance. And not do certain things — such as panic buy face masks, stockpile food and essentials — so that other people are not deprived.

Anxiety prompts us to do irrational things. We look upon people who have to go to work — such as healthcare or municipal workers — with suspicion, fearing the transmission of a latent viral infection. Some people also start self-medicating with untested drugs based on unconfirmed and anecdotal evidence of a cure.

Dr Debanjan Banerjee, psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) in Bangalore, works on pandemic mental health. He says, “The prime crisis of a pandemic due to a new infection is the uncertainty behind it.” He thinks this is because we are overloaded with information. “It’s kind of an ‘information pollution’ with multiple inputs of facts and figures coming in through various forms of digital and social media, leading to misconceptions worsening uncertainty.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) released an advisory on “Mental Health and Psychosocial Consideration During Covid-19 Outbreak”. The most important bit of advice in it is minimising the consumption of news that causes you to feel anxious and distressed. It says, “Seek information only from trusted sources and mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones…Facts can help minimise fears.”

A daily dose of facts can help us rationalise the situation and keep the threat in perspective. Facts such as the mortality rate of Covid-19, as estimated by WHO in early March, is 3.4 per cent. In China, which has a population of around 1.5 billion, at the time of writing 3,277 people died out of a total 81,171 cases of infection. More importantly, 73,159 people recovered. To put that in perspective, Ebola had a mortality rate of 50 per cent, MERS 34 per cent and SARS 11 per cent.

Panic and anxiety don’t just impair our immune system, but are also contagious. A 2014 study at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universitat Dresden, Germany, found that even being around a stressed person, be it a loved one or a stranger, can make one feel stressed. When we are worrying on a global scale, it is not surprising that a lot of people will be affected. In this situation, it would be better to calm a friend, partner or relative down.

As Dr Banerjee says, it is our collective responsibility to prevent panic. If you hear or read something you know is wrong, please correct the facts. There is enough Covid-19 everywhere. Let us talk about something else, if we can. As he says, “There is life beyond a pandemic.”