Why the coronavirus pandemic triggers such deep fears and how we can calm ourselves down

March 27th, 2020
man breathing with eyes closed, a way to tame fight-or-flight to coronavirus.
We can manage fight-or-flight thinking during the coronavirus pandemic and other stressful times. Photo: Getty Images.

“Stayin’ Alive” isn’t just a catchy tune from 1977; it’s the essential driving force for humans. Our brain has a powerful system constantly watching out for danger to keep us safe.

Many have heard about the “fight-or-flight” response. What most people don’t realize is how strongly our ingrained responses influence us, especially during a crisis like the one going on right now.

Parts of our brains specialize in scanning incoming information for danger. Most stuff passes by this risk filter – like a familiar, friendly dog. But if a piece of information seems dangerous – like a big, barking dog racing toward us – the system triggers and a whole bunch of responses happen. Our heart and lungs speed up, our body tenses, blood redirects to larger muscles, we feel anxious and alert, and more. Our body gets ready to run or fight for our lives.

The effect isn’t just physical. The logic center in our brain gets suppressed and our fear center takes over. This means choices we’d normally make calmly and rationally are instead driven by anxiety and worries – whether they are real or imagined.

We can manage fight-or-flight thinking during the coronavirus pandemic and other stressful times. Try using some of these methods:

  • Acknowledge these are extraordinary times and take it easy on yourself and everyone else.
  • Take time to slow down with some deep breaths. Even a few help.
  • Limit how often you check the news or spend time on social media.
  • Get information on the coronavirus pandemic from trusted sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State of Colorado, not from social media.
  • Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep — all good for the immune system!
  • Try meditation and mindfulness.
  • Do something for someone else. Small gestures make a big difference and make you feel better too.
  • Be physically distant, not emotionally distant: Use technology to connect or talk across a front yard fence (at least six feet apart).
  • Every day, identify things that you’re grateful for: a pretty sunset, listening to a favorite song, chatting with a friend, playing with a child, and food in the cupboard.
  • If the anxiety or worry is interfering with everyday functioning, consider speaking with a counselor (many of whom offer virtual visits) or call the Colorado Crisis Services’ hotline at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.

The fight-or-flight response is great if you need to run away from a bear or fight off an attacker, but threats like the coronavirus pandemic don’t give us a clear outlet for all that energy. And that’s when trouble starts.

Toilet paper hoarding is a good example. People get worried. Someone decides toilet paper is the commodity that is going to be scarce and starts stocking up. Others see that and their fear centers say, “Hey, I’d better buy six months’ worth of TP as well.”  And so on, and so on, until the shelves are bare.

Such fight-or-flight driven choices can lead to increasing spirals of worry. And many, if not most of us, are being affected by our anxieties. This system is very primitive. It shows that the fear of missing out or FOMO isn’t just about parties or bungee jumping, but about everyday activities too, even in a crisis. When fear kicks in, people will do whatever is necessary to reduce that fear and create a sense of control — whether that is buying large amounts of paper products and pasta, or getting into fights over the last can of Lysol.

Unfortunately, the brain’s fear detection system can be like an overly sensitive car alarm, going off and making everyone crazy when the reaction may be out of proportion to the risk. Certainly, we are facing real and grave risks now. But shopping won’t allay our fears or inoculate us from the virus.

What’s more, the brain’s danger assessment process is notoriously bad at assessing risk. It worked well when our choices were simpler: saber-toothed tiger = danger, little puppy = safe. But modern risks are so complicated that the brain struggles. Cars and airplanes are classic examples. Ask most people what’s more dangerous of the two and they’ll say flying. Yet the numbers are clear: flying is far safer than driving. Most of us hop in a car without a second thought, yet get a jolt of adrenaline anytime we hit turbulence or hear a weird thump on takeoff.

woman looking out window demonstrating we have fears and fight-or-flight responses to the coronavirus right now.
The coronavirus pandemic can trigger deep fears, but there are techniques to manage fight-or-flight responses during this and other stressful times. Photo: Getty Images.

The fight-or-flight system focuses on things that happen quickly, are uncommon, feel out of our control, or seem likely to hurt us in serious or scary ways. Though driving is riskier than flying, it feels familiar, in our control, and thus, survivable. Dropping out of the sky happens fast, is unfamiliar, and makes us feel out of our control, and hard to survive – so our brains trigger the fight or flight response even though logic should tell us we’ll be OK. Fortune Magazine noted this a few years ago: “Put it another way: Americans have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash, according to the National Safety Council. The odds of dying in air [travel]… are 1 in 9,821. That’s almost three times better chances than you [dying] by choking on food,’’ according to the article in Fortune Magazine.

COVID-19 pushes all the same mental buttons as flying: sudden, unfamiliar, out of our control, and potentially deadly. It’s no wonder that many of us are feeling anxious and letting that fear response guide some of our decisions. COVID-19 is not an imagined danger, the risks are real, but fight or flight-driven thinking can lead to decisions that won’t keep us safer and may make things worse.

For all updates and to read more articles about the new coronavirus, please visit uchealth.org/covid19

Nathan Mesnikoff speaks about fight-or-flight during the coronavirus.
Nathan Mesnikoff

That’s because fear has another unfortunate side effect. It can shift us into survival-mode thinking which not only leads to hoarding of things like toilet paper; it can also narrow our focus to just ourselves and our immediate circle. But pandemics, like other widespread crises, really need us to think more broadly about our community and highlight how interconnected we are across Colorado, across the country, and across the world. We need each other, not only for food and toilet paper, but for health care, assistance with problems, and for simple connections.

About the author

Rev. Nathan Mesnikoff is director of spiritual care and volunteer services at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. Nathan’s been a hospital chaplain since 2005.

Before moving into hospital leadership, he served as the adult critical care chaplain at Memorial working with patients and families facing serious illness and injury in the intensive care unit. Nathan co-chairs Memorial’s Clinical Ethics committee, helping clinicians and others work through complex issues.

A passionate teacher, Nathan leads classes on preventing burnout, managing stress, advance directives, end of life care, and medical ethics. Nathan has published on compassion fatigue prevention and interfaith chaplaincy. He holds graduate degrees in Comparative Religion and Philosophy of Religion.

When not at the hospital, Nathan and his family enjoy travel, hiking, bicycle touring, reading, and playing board games.