Events like pandemics can bring out the best— and worst— in people. As COVID-19 continues to upend life as we know it, a huge chunk of society is responding in mass hysteria and fear.
People fighting over toilet paper.
Whole towns emptying grocery stores of essentials like food, water, and disinfectants.
Photos of lockdowns and fake death tolls all over the internet.
These scenarios are enough to trigger mass hysteria in anyone. In some cases, the people’s knee-jerk reaction to the word “pandemic” could be more dangerous than the actual disease itself.
So, how do you protect yourself from the effects of mass hysteria during a pandemic and what can you do when you get caught in the midst of it? Here’s what you need to know:
Mass Hysteria Meaning: The Psychology Behind Costco’s Empty Toilet Paper Shelves
Psychologists often define mass hysteria as collective obsessional behavior. If you really wanna get all scientific, they also call it mass psychogenic illness. It’s described as a rapid spread of unusual symptoms or behaviors among a group of people, regardless if the threat is real or not.
You can tell that it’s mass hysteria from a mile away if the symptoms or behaviors:
- often do not have an underlying physical cause
- are mild and usually go away as quickly as they appeared
- occur in a certain group of people
- occurs when anxiety levels are high
Sometimes, mass hysteria could present physically, like how hundreds of passengers from a long-haul flight reported feeling unwell, after a handful of them presented symptoms like coughing, vomiting, sneezing, and fever. It turned out that only 11 of these passengers were actually sick enough to go to the hospital. The rest only had a common cold or were otherwise perfectly normal.
Other times, mass hysteria could manifest behaviorally.
A perfect example would be in kindergarten, where one moment, everyone’s fine until one kid starts crying and the next thing you know, you’ve got a bunch of 5 year-olds bawling for their parents.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the world has somehow devolved into one giant kindergarten.
We’re not saying that the threat isn’t real—it truly is—but the way some people are responding to it can be irrational and even dangerous at times.
Take the hoarding of toilet paper, for example. When you ask Karen at Costco why she’s piling a small mountain of 2-ply TP in her grocery cart, chances are she’ll shrug and say, “Because everyone else is doing it!”. She’ll probably think you’re gonna steal her stash and start a brawl right there on aisle 6.
Logically, this behavior makes zero freaking sense! So why do people do it, anyway?
It’s Dumb, But Why Do We Do It Anyway?
Even science can’t pinpoint the exact reason why society dissolves into mass hysteria during times of stress. Some thought that it had to do with age or IQ, but that’s not really the case. Experience will show that even the smartest person in your neighborhood would fight tooth and nail for the last can of beans if it came down to it.
They have a few theories on why most people act this way, though:
It’s Our Brain’s Way Of Gaining Control
Some studies suggest that anxiety-induced behaviors like panic buying are our brain’s way of gaining control over an unpredictable, often confusing, situation. It’s really not that different from shopping for new clothes or buying new gadgets to make yourself feel better after a terrible day.
When you’re faced with a situation that you can’t predict the outcome of, you’d want to gain some semblance of control, and for many, that comes in the form of buying a truckload of stuff.
Widespread news and social media coverage could only stoke these feelings of panic and confusion. For folks who don’t know any better (that is, most folks), emptying the nearest Target or Trader Joe’s could be the best thing that they could do.
We’re Simply Copying What Others Are Doing
The fact that humans are insanely social creatures doesn’t exactly help curb mass panic, either. Studies show that when we’re confronted by a collective threat, we don’t fight or flight. We stay together and copy what others are doing for self-preservation.
During this event, our capacity for individual thinking actually grinds to a halt and we switch over to some sort of mob mentality. It’s like the blind leading the blind. One person starts going hysterical, and the others follow, too.
Which can be a recipe for disaster in more ways than one.
It’s A Defense Mechanism To Hide Our Cluelessness
Panic behaviors can also be used as defense mechanisms to hide our cluelessness.
Remember, the current pandemic is caused by a novel coronavirus strain. Since no one knew how the virus worked, no one knew how to respond, either.
Instead, society at large associated this emergency with all the other emergencies they’ve encountered in the past, like hurricanes or snowstorms. That’s why in some parts of the country, you see people hoarding gallons of water but failing to stock up on over-the-counter medications or disinfectant wipes.
Effects Of Mass Hysteria During A Pandemic
Collectively losing our cool during an emergency situation is…not cool. At all. Here are some of the worst effects of mass hysteria during a pandemic like COVID-19:
- Massive supply shortage of basic goods and personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Price gouging due to limited supply
- Possible riots and looting
- Discrimination and xenophobia
- Uneven distribution of supplies and PPE could increase the chances of spreading the infection to people who don’t have these necessities on hand.
- Increased cases of infection could overwhelm the hospitals and government response
- News of mass hysteria can circulate all over social media and increase tension and anxiety
- People see the news, panic, and begin the cycle of mass hysteria all over again.
So, how do you break the cycle? How do you protect yourself and your family from public panic and survive a pandemic?
We’ve got a few ideas.
How To Protect Yourself From Panic and Hysteria During A Pandemic Outbreak
Anticipate The Possibility Of Mass Hysteria Or Panic
A good prepper is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Learn to spot the possibility of mass hysteria before it happens. Watch out for the following red flags:
- an unforeseen crisis (ie a novel strain of coronavirus)
- a large-scale emergency or phenomenon that could negatively affect security, the economy, and communities
- conflicting information from figures of authority
- no clear plans on how to control, mitigate, or solve the crisis
- widespread news or social media coverage about the event
If you see these signs, better brace yourself and prepare accordingly.
Surround Yourself With Facts
Fake news, hoaxes, and false reports can spread panic and anxiety like wildfire. To prevent this, make sure to listen only to facts. Consume content from verified sources, not from dubious posts on the internet or old wives’ tales.
For pandemic cases like COVID-19, the WHO has dedicated a massive resource that’s got everything you need to know about the virus, including daily situation reports and updates.
When you’ve got the right information, you can evaluate the situation better and make rational choices.
Refrain from sharing shady “news” articles, too. Know how to spot bogus headlines and clickbait. Read through the whole thing, check the sources, and verify your facts before clicking that share button.
Keep A Level Head On Your Shoulders
This one’s easier said than done, but it will definitely help you, especially when SHTF.
Many doctors in the ER practice a technique called isolationism, where they’re able to block out external stimuli, focus on the task at hand, and make the right calls. They do this by paying attention to objective cues only, temporarily blocking out emotions and other subjective thoughts.
You can practice a version of isolationism by learning how to block out unnecessary information. For example, do you really need to have a blow-by-blow update on positive cases, death tolls, lockdowns, or lootings during a pandemic? Sure, you need to tune in to the news, but you don’t need to consume everything.
Do you really need to listen to your next-door neighbor rant about how the apocalypse is upon us? Things are kind of dire, but calling it the apocalypse might be a stretch. And if it is, hell, you’re more than prepared for it.
If it’s not going to help you make an informed decision, don’t listen to it, and more importantly, don’t share it. Keep a level head on your shoulders, focus on facts, know the task at hand, and act accordingly.
Formulate A Plan Of Action Based On Facts
If you’re a prepper, you probably have multiple plans at the ready; all you have left to do is modify it according to the situation.
For viral pandemics that don’t have vaccines or cures like COVID-19, the best course of action is to prevent getting it in the first place.
Here’s what you can do to combat COVID-19:
- Practice social distancing. Shelter in place and refrain from going to crowded places and gatherings. Only go out when absolutely necessary, keeping a distance of at least 3 feet from other people.
- If you really need to go out of your house, take measures to decrease your chances of infection. Instead of using your hands to open doors, push them open using your shoulders or back. Use your knuckles to push the elevator buttons, ATM buttons, or light switches.
- When at the grocery store, wipe down cart and basket handles. Avoid using your bare hands when picking out your groceries, especially the produce. Use plastic gloves if you can. Observe social distancing while standing in line. If you can opt for self-checkout or a cashless transaction, do it. This decreases your contact with other people. Lastly, make sure to wash your hands before entering your home.
- Wash your hands with running water and soap for at least 20 seconds. If you can’t, use a sanitizer that has 80% alcohol. Both methods are effective in killing the virus. Do this after going outside or after touching suspect surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, and the like.
- When entering your home, avoid touching doorknobs. Instead, let the people inside the house open the door for you. If you can’t do this, set up a little “disinfection station” on your doorstep.
- Take a shower immediately and put your dirty clothes in the washbin. Make it a habit to disinfect the things you bring with you, like your wallet, phone, bag, or purse.
- Wipe high-touch surfaces like tables, door knobs, and counters with disinfectant wipes. Mop floors down with disinfectant solution regularly, too.
- Stock up on masks (to be worn when you feel sick), disposable gloves, disinfectant solutions, and Lysol spray.
- Make sure to have over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, Advil, and Robitussin to manage symptoms. Have your scripts filled ahead of time so you don’t risk running out when supplies are low.
For more information on COVID-19, check out this comprehensive blog post.
Have A Stockpile Ready
It’s easier to stop a herd of wild horses than to tell people to calm the heck down during a pandemic. People will panic-buy whether you like it or not, so make sure that you’ve already got a stockpile waiting at home. You don’t want to be part of the crowd scrambling for TP, masks, or a sack of rice. You don’t want to risk getting infected, either, so start building that pantry.
Your stockpile will ultimately come in handy if and when the authorities order a community quarantine or lock-down in your area.
You also have to know how to use those supplies properly and how to make them last for a long time. We’ve talked about bugging in and stockpiling in this article, so if you need brushing up, check it out.
Develop Situational awareness
Situational awareness is often used for urban survival, but it’s also vital for large-scale situations like pandemics.
Develop a habit of surveying a scene. What’s the general mood of the environment? Is it tense? Do people seem confident that this will blow over soon? Do you need to put on additional measures to guard your house from looters? Will they shut establishments down? How long until the authorities become overwhelmed?
Be mindful of your surroundings, especially the places that you frequent most. This allows you to create a game plan in case you get caught in a wave of mass hysteria.
It pays to know the various exit and entrance points in your office building or being familiar with the bus or train routes in your area. Which roads get congested at what time? Where do people converge? What’s the fastest or most secure way out of dodge?
Developing a sense of situational awareness will help you create contingencies before it’s too late.
Here’s a common mistake: thinking that the government can take care of everything for everyone. If you’ve been prepping for quite some time now, you’ll know that the opposite is true, especially during emergencies.
The public need will overwhelm the resources real quick. There will be a shortage of basic resources. Law and order will take some time to be enforced. You’ll have to know how to fend for yourself by practicing valuable survival skills like:
- Fortifying your home
- Installing alternative energy options
- Signaling for help
- Growing a survival garden
- First aid
- Communicating during emergencies
The word “pandemic” can throw anyone in a tizzy, but as a prepper, you’ll have to rise above these feelings of panic and confusion.
By knowing how mass hysteria works, you can take measures to protect yourself from it or at least manage its effects until things calm down.
Are you prepared against mass hysteria? How are you preparing for this pandemic? Sound off in the comments below!