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Why You're Panicking and What to do Instead

As we in South Africa head into a necessary 21 Day Lockdown, it’s hard not to feel troubled. We’ve all seen the images of empty shelves at the grocery store, and wondered: am I not panicking enough? Is there something the people bulk-buying toilet paper know that I don’t? Before you let these thoughts spin out of hand, it’s important to understand the psychology behind why you’re panicking in the first place.

What’s my brain doing?

First and foremost, humans like to feel a sense of control. If we can control some aspect of a stressful situation, it’s much less stressful. However, Covid-19 is different to, for example, a natural disaster or a war, because the best thing that we can do to fight it is to do nothing at all. We can’t volunteer our time or donate our resources as much as we would have been able to in those other situations. Humans have such a strong need for control that we resort to things like panic buying enough supplies to last us through a nuclear winter because for a lot of us that’s the only action we can take. In these troubling times we need to keep perspective and look at this behaviour for what it is: a knee-jerk response to feeling helpless.

The second thing happening is a herd mentality. We see people buying crates upon crates of beans and long-life milk and immediately feel we need to do the same. Research has shown that it only takes 5% of a crowd to influence the other 95%’s decision – and they don’t even realise it’s happening. As social creatures, we love to conform to the crowd and this video is a great example of how that looks. Although we rely on other humans for cues as to how we should be acting, in times of crisis it’s critical to step back and ask yourself: is this really something that needs to be done?

Finally, the concept of scarcity is very powerful to our brains. The moment we even anticipate scarcity (like when we see images of empty shelves at the grocery store), we can lose up to 14 IQ points. Our brains enter full panic mode and we find that we’ll do anything – even fight off shoppers with our bare hands – to avoid loss. The parts of our brains responsible for assessing long-term options fall to the wayside, and we concentrate on what feels safe in the present.

The fairer sex

For a long time, researchers had a single model for how humans react to crisis: fight or flight. You’ve probably read about this before. If you feel threatened, or you’re in a crisis, researchers thought, you’ll either face the problem head on or you’ll run in the other direction. Both are fuelled by your sympathetic nervous system, which gives your body a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it was based on studies that primarily used men or male animals as test subjects. It was only in the year 2000 that a team led by researcher Taylor E. Shelley decided to focus on how women and female animals responded to stress. The results were ground-breaking.

Females, who often act as primary caregivers in both human and animal social structures, don’t have the option to fight a threat (because who would look after their young if they got injured? What if the female is pregnant?) and it’s difficult to flee with children or the frail in tow. Rather, when faced with crisis, females tend to adopt behaviour dubbed “Tend and Befriend.”

The “Tend” aspect refers to behaviours that nurture and protect themselves and their offspring. It is aimed at increasing safety and decreasing stress. The “Befriending” means building and maintaining a social support network with those nearby (often but not exclusively other females) so that the group as a whole is safer from a threat than if they were alone.

This different response to stress is most likely due to the different levels of oxytocin and oestrogen in female brains. However, just because women tend to do this more, and men tend to respond with fight or flight, it doesn’t mean this response falls strictly within the lines of gender. Men are capable of adopting this response to stress as much as women are likely to fight or flee.

What should I do?

The fact is, you can’t physically fight Covid-19 (unless you’re a doctor) and most airports aren’t allowing for fleeing at the moment. Fleeing psychologically is an option, but emotionally withdrawing until this is over is bad for both your mental and physical health.

Regardless of gender, the best that we can do in this time of crisis is tend and befriend. If you’re isolating with family or friends, ensure that they are feeling safe, help them if they feel overwhelmed, and make sure to keep an eye on your own stress levels. Use modern technology to keep your social support structures strong: call your friends and family, arrange online gatherings and check in on those who might be more vulnerable. Not only is this behaviour a useful way for your own brain to process crisis, it increases the wellbeing of those around you. And you don’t even have to change out of your pyjamas to do it.

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