Applied Psychology

Corona pandemic: why staying calm is the best thing we can do

Apr 01, 2020 | By Signpost

Panic is an understandable reaction, but not a helpful one. We investigate the roots of panic and suggest ways to stay calm during the corona pandemic.

Key takeaways

  • While it’s important to recognise the severity of the situation, panic buying is not a rational response and just piles on more problems
  • Studies show that panic buying is an attempt to compensate for the lack of control that people feel when they face an invisible enemy, like the coronavirus
  • People can restore a sense of control by arming themselves with information and practising stress management techniques

The corona pandemic presents a new and unfamiliar challenge, the kind that the world hasn’t faced in perhaps a century. So far, it has been marked by worldwide lockdown, and panic buying sprees that leave store shelves entirely stripped of goods.

Panic is a predictable reaction to a situation like this, but how helpful is it? It’s important to recognise the severity of the situation, but clearing out store shelves isn’t exactly helping, nor can it be considered a rational response.

But then, we know enough about people to know that responding rationally is not their strong suit when facing a crisis. We investigate the roots of panic, and how maintaining calm can make a situation like this easier on everyone.

Why people panic buy in situations like the corona pandemic

According to Andrew Yap, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSTEAD: “The coronavirus is an invisible enemy. It’s something that we cannot see. And, when you cannot see your enemy, what happens is that you lose this sense of control.” Buying things is a way for people to feel like they are retaining control of a situation.

People especially tend towards buying things that could help solve the problem that is causing their panic in the first place. In the case of the coronavirus, anything that makes them feel cleaner; hence the strange rush for toilet paper.

To a large extent, it doesn’t even matter whether these goods are effective in stopping the virus. The mere act of buying them makes people feel like they have some control.

The result of panic

Panic generally doesn’t produce optimal results. Some people overcompensate with buying sprees, while others retreat into denial and attempt to convince themselves everything can just go on as normal.

Part of this is a result of the “normalcy bias”, meaning that our brains automatically assume things will continue in the long-term as they have in the short-term. The brain thus struggles to deal with the disruption of the “normal” way of life.

Of course, we don’t want people to dismiss the severity of the situation, but nor do we want the kind of irrational behaviour evident in panicked buying sprees. There’s no indication that goods are running out, yet people still swamp store shelves and make it difficult for others to stock up in the process.

How to regain control

So what can be done? We propose a few ways for people to restore a sense of control during the coronavirus pandemic, and thereby channel their energy into something more productive.

Arm yourself with information

When faced with an unfamiliar situation, the best thing to do is to arm yourself with as much information as possible. Read the WHO (World Health Organisation) guidelines for coronavirus, and stay abreast of the latest updates. Keeping yourself informed will do much to restore a sense of control and preparedness.

Avoid groupthink

Ironically, one of the reasons you’re seeing so much panic-buying is that you’re seeing so much panic-buying. In other words, people hear that toilet paper is running out, so they rush out to buy more toilet paper because they think it’s something they should be buying.

Current information suggests that supply chains will remain intact and that there’s no reason for people to be clearing out the shelves, certainly not for things like toilet paper which does not address the coronavirus in any way. The fact is we’re seeing groupthink in action; people see others panic buying and decide to jump on the bandwagon.

Stress management techniques

Practising stress management techniques such as deep breathing, positive self-talk and progressive muscle relaxation will help deal with the anxiety that comes with a crisis.

Mindfulness is a particularly powerful technique that can be of significant benefit during the shutdown period. It means focusing on the present moment, without judgement. This has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety and depression, and reduce “rumination” – compulsive thinking with a negative effect.

It’s not something one can easily do without having spent time practising it. Mindfulness has to be a regular practice in order to see the benefits, and meditation is key to that practice. Whatever its new-age connotations, meditation has been proven to have benefits for emotional wellbeing. There’s a range of apps that provide guided meditations in order to help newcomers learn the basics, such as Headspace, Calm and Sam Harris’ Waking Up.

The psychology of panic

If you’re interested in human behaviour patterns and how we can transcend them, or at least minimise their impact, you should consider studying psychology; a broad topic that provides insight into the human condition while developing a range of useful skills in the process. SACAP offers courses that can be studied on-campus, or from the comfort of your own home with their online learning services. For more information, enquire now.

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