How to Manage Your Fear During the Coronavirus

Fear of the virus may be more infectious than the virus itself

Tom Jacobs
Elemental
Published in
5 min readMar 5, 2020

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Image: Xia Yang/Getty Images

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ItIt can harm people’s health and weaken entire societies. Thanks to modern technology, it can spread rapidly around the world. And there is no effective vaccine.

I’m not referring to Covid-19, although the coronavirus can serve as its catalyst. Rather, an infectious agent that is as old as civilization itself and is rapidly reaching epidemic proportions: fear.

Fear can take both a physical and psychological toll. It thrives in an atmosphere of distrust and confusion. As Franklin Roosevelt famously remarked, as he began his Depression-era presidency, fear needs to be identified and confronted.

“The fear of the virus may spread faster than the virus itself,” says Norbert Schwarz, a provost professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California. “Unfortunately, that fear will also spread to totally unrelated domains of life. A decade ago, the threat of swine flu not only increased Americans’ concern about getting the flu — it also increased the perceived risk of getting a heart attack, dying in an accident, or being the victim of crime.”

“Once the world feels like a dangerous place, where bad things can happen any moment, fear knows few limits.”

Fear of new phenomena — such as this previously unknown virus — is especially potent, according to E. Scott Geller, a behavioral psychologist and alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. “Everywhere you go, people are talking about it,” he says. “As we communicate about it, we’re sharing our uncertainty — and uncertainty is scary.”

“Statistically, we lose more lives on the highway than in most epidemics, but on the highway, we’re in control,” says Geller. “We say to ourselves, ‘That’s not going to happen to me because I know how to prevent it.’ But with this virus, we don’t know that. So the more we hear about it, the scarier it feels.”

James Dillard of Penn State, an expert in communication, describes a similar dynamic: “Every time somebody mentions the coronavirus to you, you recall everything you…

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Tom Jacobs
Elemental

Tom Jacobs is a California-based journalist who focuses on psychology, behavior, creativity, and the arts. He was the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard.