When the senses suspect a potential threat to be present, the brain initiates a very specific protocol—a chain reaction of events that prepare the body to either defend itself or escape by whatever means necessary.
The fear-based “flight or fight” response originates in the part of the brain known as the amygdala. When triggered, the amygdala overrides conscious thought so that all of the body’s energy can be redirected toward surviving the threat. Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Katherine Brownlowe says that: “The release of neurochemicals and hormones causes an increase in heart rate and breathing, shunts blood away from the intestines and sends more to the muscles, for running or fighting.” It takes the body between 20 and 60 minutes to return to pre-response conditions.
It’s pretty difficult to read the news about the coronavirus and not experience this reaction (I’ve been triggered multiple times just researching and writing this letter). Thanks to our 24-hour news cycle, we are faced with endless alerts and headlines about the virus such as “Is This the Big One?”
Let’s look at the facts. As of today, there are 95,000 cases of the coronavirus worldwide and around 3,000 deaths. Comparatively, according to the CDC, there have been 32 million cases of the common flu and 18,000 deaths in the U.S. this season alone. While the World Health Organization has said that the coronavirus has a higher mortality rate (3.4%), health experts are in wide disagreement about this number, saying that it doesn’t factor in immune system functionality and mild or undocumented cases. According to Adam Kucharski, a mathematician who studies the spread of the virus, the mortality rate is more likely between 0.5 and 2 percent.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t read the news or follow precautions recommended by officials (you should probably be washing your hands more often anyway, and did you know that NYC public transit wasn’t being sanitized every 72 hours before?!). The coronavirus is new and therefore comes with more unknowns, which only heightens fear—for when we can’t understand something, we assume it is a threat. But we have to remember that when our fear response is triggered, rational thought is designed to be overridden.
Panic is a virus that is both diligent and dangerous when left unchecked. So rather than letting it spread, stay skeptical of everything, be intelligent about where you are getting your information, and continuously put it into perspective. Take a deep breath, keep calm, and listen to the science.