Mass Anxiety: How to Cope With the Mental Fallout of Coronavirus

7 ways to keep your head straight when the world seems a little off-key.

Karen Nimmo
Mar 15 · 5 min read

I’m in the supermarket today and it’s a hot mess.

Shopping trolleys are brimming with rice, pasta, tins of everything and — of course — toilet paper. The queues are insane. The faces are serious. People are stocking up like they think the Apocalypse is coming.

That’s how fear spreads — beyond the news and social media — through the facial expressions, body language and behaviours of the people around us. It’s a natural human drive to copy what others are doing — especially in times of uncertainty.

So as we all come to terms with the wider impact of Coronavirus, and what it means for us personally, it’s important to keep an eye on the not-so-obvious psychological fallout that goes with it.

Mass Anxiety: What’s Going On?

Mass anxiety is when fear spreads through a population and escalates, leading to extreme worry and irrational thoughts, beliefs and actions. It’s been likened to an extreme form of Groupthink, in which people follow the group, or a persuasive leader, rather than critically evaluating the facts.

When it ramps up, it kicks rational thought and action into touch — sometimes in out-of-character ways. So even the healthiest person may inexplicably believe they are sick and that little old lady pretending to browse the soap section may steal the last roll of toilet paper from your trolley.

That’s why sound, fact-based leadership is so important right now — not just by Government, but also in the workplace and at home. Because emotionally-driven words, tweets or decisions can ignite unhelpful — even dangerous — behaviour.

The probability is that Coronavirus, if it hasn’t already, is on its way to an outpost (very) near you. The other probability is that most of us won’t be affected. Not physically, anyway.

But we owe it to town, city and country — and all those little pairs of eyes looking up to us — to manage our own psyches and send out messages of resilience, calm, compassion and sensibility.

Here are some ways to do it.

7 Strategies for Coping With Coronavirus

Coronavirus may never come to your place but your reactions are already there — and anxiety is so easily passed on. So think about the people around you, especially if you are a parent. You don’t want to train your kids to be easily scared, led by their feelings and have an every-person-for-themselves attitude. You’re allowed to have, and express, feelings but base your words on facts and truth, and model how you want those around you to be — even if you have to put on an act for a while.

It’s an interesting time to be alive. Yes, it’s enormously stressful for some, and lives will (and have been) lost — which is the reality of a pandemic. Stress aside, this is an unprecedented opportunity to learn how a pandemic works, preparations for such an event, health hygiene and limiting the spread of infectious diseases. So (1) educate yourself through sound, trusted sources. And (2) keep up with the latest news — but don’t drip-feed yourself on all things pandemic. Keep boundaries around your exposure to news, social media and especially fear mongering.

It’s human nature to want what others have got — especially when there’s a shortage. But this is self-serving behaviour at its worst: other people have bladders and bowels too. And if you do get the last pack in your supermarket, don’t brag about it, don’t go home like you’ve won the Olympic 100m. Seriously, that’s a bit weird.

In psychology, one of the most common styles of dysfunctional thinking is catastrophising — when you take whatever’s happening, imagine the very worst case scenario, then worry yourself into a frenzy about it BEFORE it has happened.

If you have a tendency to do this, give yourself a break: it’s super-common. But it’s also extremely unhelpful and can be a trigger or maintaining factor for depression and anxiety — not to mention a waste of mental energy.

This is an uncertain time for everyone, and it will be for a while, so we need to manage ourselves through it — with patience. When you feel your thoughts running away on you, distract yourself with other activities. And use meditation or mindfulness techniques to bring yourself back to where you are and what you have to do — right now.

There’s a reason we rush to call loved ones and family when disaster strikes. Of course we want to know they’re okay — or for them to know we are. But we are also psychologically driven to attach to familiar figures in uncertain or scary times. So if you can’t be with those who matter to you, use technology to stay close.

If you have a tendency to get anxious, and especially if your routine has been shaken up (like you’re now working from home), it’s critical to structure your time. Before you go to bed, write a list of five things you are going to do the next day — it will give you a framework to hang your day on, a way to keep moving forward and a sense of achievement at the end of each day.

Okay, you can’t show compassion to the whole world. So do what you can for the people around you. And if there’s no-one around you, reach out. Send a thoughtful or upbeat text or snapchat to someone who might need one — or who might be on their own. Don’t just pass on Coronavirus updates. Connect in positive and loving ways. Hopefully, the goodwill you spread will last longer than the pandemic.


Thanks for reading! Join my email list here if you’re interested in practical psychology for everyday life.

On The Couch

Practical psychology for everyday life.

Karen Nimmo

Written by

Clinical psychologist, writer, still learning how to live. Author of 3 books, including Busy As F*ck: 10 on-the-couch sessions for busy people everywhere.

On The Couch

Practical psychology for everyday life. Owned/Edited by clinical psychologist and writer Karen Nimmo.

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