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COVID-19: Life in the fast lane



A few months ago, my brother excitedly told us he was planning a trip to Holland with his friends because he thought a few days away would be a welcome break from the stresses of work.

However, my sister did not share his excitement and her immediate response was to tell him not to go.

When she failed to dissuade him, she told him to at least pack a face mask. This kind of response is not surprising at a time when the world has been brought to the edge of mania.  There is a name for this phenomenon- ‘moral panic’.

Moral panic is a concept in sociology that refers to the phenomenon of a mass of people becoming distressed about a perceived threat or social issue.

This threat, however, is often catastrophised, or over-exaggerated, in the media, leading to a collective stray from the reality of the problem.

The current turmoil around Covid-19 is nothing new; we saw similar reactions during the swine flu pandemic, the SARS outbreak and Ebola.

Yet the global response to the new coronavirus signals a new and unfamiliar level of threat that is unprecedented, and far surpasses that of previous pandemics.

The world has seen a host of negative repercussions from the spread of Covid-19.

FTSE stocks falling dramatically, schools closing down and sporting events and festivals being cancelled to name a few.

However, there have also been equally negative consequences from the spread of moral panic, including Chinese students being victims of hate crimes and supermarkets being emptied in record time.

While the former are sanctions placed by governments based on scientific advice, the latter are unwarranted and harmful.

So how do emotions like panic and anxiety influence us? What effect does fear have on our ability to make rational decisions?

When it comes to emotion in the brain, research suggests that there are two ‘paths’ emotion can take: the slow route or the fast route.

This illustration shows the slow route on the left, with the relevant frontal areas highlighted. In contrast, the diagram on the right shows the fast route which bypasses the frontal brain areas.

The slow route involves information from our senses travelling through the frontal lobes and hippocampus, areas of the brain which are involved in reasoning, memory and learning.

The information then travels to the amygdala, a brain area well-known for its role in processing fear and automatic responses to emotion.

Thanks to the frontal lobes and hippocampus, this route means that we can assess the situation logically and weigh up our options, before choosing the best emotional response.

However, the fast route to emotional experience means that information travels straight to the amygdala (the fear processing centre) and bypasses those ‘logical’ areas. This results in an immediate reaction.

For example, imagine going on a walk and suddenly coming face to face with a wild bear. You would probably be terrified and experience a boost of adrenaline whilst running away as fast as you could.

In a situation where you have to react quickly, the fast route is beneficial. But not all situations call for this type of instant response; in other situations, it can do more harm than good.

Most people can relate to the feeling of being so overwhelmed by an emotion that you can’t think straight. The slow route to emotion gives us that space to pause and think rationally before acting on how we feel.

People with brain damage to those crucial frontal lobe areas can become quick to anger over the smallest of stressors. For instance, they may become incredibly irritated if someone arrives a few minutes late to a meeting.

This shows the importance of the frontal lobe in the slow route to emotion. As the saying goes, don’t make decisions when you’re angry and don’t make promises when you’re happy- you might do something you regret later.

The same idea applies to feelings of anxiety, as when we feel anxious, we have a tendency to focus too much on anything that is remotely negative or scary.

Researchers from Cambridge investigated individuals who were highly anxious compared to those who were low on anxiety, to see how they responded to fearful faces.

They found increased amygdala activation in the individuals who were high in anxiety, even when their attention was focused on another image. These findings suggest that there is a link between high levels of anxiety and activity in the amygdala.

As mentioned earlier, the amygdala is widely linked to fear processing. When we feel anxious, we become hypervigilant of anything that could pose a threat, even if it’s practically harmless.

Interestingly, the researchers also found relatively decreased activation of regions in the frontal lobes. This reduced activity in those ‘logical’ frontal areas is reflected by an impaired ability to make rational decisions.

The recent panic-buying situation is a perfect illustration of anxiety clouding rational thought and judgement. Hand-sanitising gel ran out almost everywhere as people rushed in blind panic to protect themselves and buy more than they needed.

Although hand gel is a good preventative measure, it is unlikely that people will use all 50 of those bottles in a week. Moreover, this also leaves the most vulnerable population and key workers without these essential resources. Research investigating the effect of anxiety on decision-making sheds some light on why this may be happening.

Two psychologists from Italy, Bensi and Giusberti, proposed that extremely anxious people would be more likely to jump to conclusions when it came to making a decision.

Just as they predicted, studies have shown that anxious individuals ask for less evidence before making a decision on experimental tasks and they collect less data before answering a hypothetical question.

In a state of anxiety, our priority becomes to get rid of that feeling, so we are less likely to spend a lot of time thinking before making a decision.

We just want to stop feeling anxious as quickly as possible. So when it comes to moral panic, it is easy to understand how people can become overwhelmed by strong feelings of fear and anxiety, which can then lead them to make bad decisions (like emptying all supermarkets, corner stores and petrol stations of bread).

One psychologist says that a reason for this type of mass behaviour is because these emotions spread rapidly across individuals and at a time of moral panic, facts are replaced by opinions about facts.

In an age of alternative truths and widespread misinformation, a pandemic such as Covid-19 is bound to become embroiled in myths and lies. The research discussed above shows that when people become highly anxious, they seek out less information before making a decision and they do not care about whether the information is correct.

Therefore, even though we are constantly being bombarded with daunting updates on the new coronavirus, it is more crucial than ever to remain calm, rational and well-informed.

Before you rush to that supermarket and frantically buy 40 loaves of bread and 30 packs of toilet roll, think about the elderly lady who has taken the risk to leave home only to find the aisles completely barren.

Before you swipe to share that online article, do a quick search to find out the facts and confirm if it’s really true or just a poor attempt at fearmongering.

The unfamiliar is scary, but do not let your emotions get the better of you. Choose the slow route.

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