What Drives Fears Of A Coronavirus Pandemic?

What Drives Fears Of A Coronavirus Pandemic?
Because so little is known about exactly how many people are infected, or just how dangerous the virus is, the anxiety index is climbing.

From big box warehouses to neighborhood drug stores — Americans are preparing for a pandemic.  

"I've got like four backorders out there for masks to come in."Wayne Brown, an employee at Ace Hardware, told Newsy's sister station.

"I'm just concerned people are going to start panicking and they will start stocking up on medications," Dr. Hashim Zaibak, a pharmacist at Hayat Pharmacy, said. 

"There is a certain component of panic. A pandemic is a new thing, most people have never lived through one that is, you know, moderate or severe. The important thing to remember is pandemic is all about where it's spread, not how bad it is," said epidemiologist Dr. Cyrus Shahpar,  Prevent Epidemics Team Director at Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit who works global spread of infectious and heart diseases.

Officials say risk of coronavirus infection is still low, but because so little is known about exactly how many people are infected, or just how dangerous the virus is, the anxiety index is climbing.To help us understand people's concerns, Newsy spoke with Dr. Lynn Bufka of the American Psychological Association. She says the biggest factor is coronavirus’s novelty.

"We don't see information about the flu in the news all the time. So we're being reminded there's this potential threat out there," Bufka, a Psychologist and Associate Executive Director of Practice Research & Policy at the American Psychological Association, said. 

Medical research shows novel threats raise anxiety levels higher than more familiar ones, in a part of the brain called the amygdala. That’s the section of the brain believed to detect and process fear — and the studies show an increased response when participants look at pictures of potentially threatening things, like unfamiliar flowers or snakes.

It also has to do with something psychologists call risk perception — subjective judgments we all make about if something is threatening to us.Research shows emotion impact risk perception too. Negative emotions like anger and fear can make you perceive higher risk. 

Then there’s the anxiety for people who just can’t afford to have something like a virus interrupt their lives.

"The individuals that I'm particularly concerned about would be the individuals who don't have as much flexibility and resources in their daily lives," Bufka said. "So for somebody who can telework, being in a lockdown quarantine situation might feel somewhat annoying, you know, to always be in your home, to be sitting at your desk. I'm used to being out in the world, but for individuals who to earn money have to physically be in the location where they work. That's going to be more stressful."

Mental health experts say there are two things Americans can do right now to cut down on coronavirus related anxiety. First, mentally prepare for what disruptions in your daily life would mean for you, like being home sick for a week or even having to stay at home for a while if city lockdowns — like we’ve seen other places — would happen here.  Second — seek out other perspectives that might challenge your risk assessment. Take stock of your behavior, especially if coronavirus fear has impacted it. 

"If you're starting to see, oh, gosh, I'm maybe coping with this by having two glasses of wine every night because I just don't want to think about anything. See if you're able to dial that back, you know, and insert some of these healthier ways of coping," Bufka said.

And if making a dash to the nearest warehouse store to stock up helps ease your anxiety, that’s just fine too.