The story goes on to question how well the government is prepared to deal with the containment or spread of the disease, which has already disrupted lives and businesses around the globe.
So whats a person to do with that kind of information? Freaking out is seldom an adaptive behavior, says MH advisor Keith Roach, M.D., an internist on the faculty of Weill-Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital. And in this case, it is not.
Americans have been reminded again and again that the flu has caused more deaths than COVID-19. And neither of these viruses are as dangerous as getting in a car and driving around, Dr. Roach points out.
But why do the facts not soothe us? Part of it is the way were wired, explains Daniel Gardner, author of The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain . People don't naturally sort through the statistics about something. "We zero in on the specific instance and try to make a judgement," he says.
That makes us prone to gathering evidence that we only think is factual. If you start to fear something, you go looking for evidence that the fear exists, Gardner says. If you start to fear that theres a virus spreading, you will look for evidence of the spread. And thats as easy to find as todays social media feeds. When you ask yourself, how easy is it for me to think of someone who died of this? and the answer is I saw it on the news last night, your sense of it being a threat is going to go up, he explains. (Same if you saw the global pandemic plot in a movie, too.)
The 24/7 news cycle only sort of helps in this caseits valuable for actual information when you go to the right sources . But as public concern rises, the media reflects public concern. The feedback loop is so powerful its capable of making us have significant fears of truly trivial risks, he says.
The fact that there's a lot we still don't know about COVID-19 knocks us off center, too. Experts are still trying to pin down who sheds the virus when, how, and to how many people. On top of it, what we do know feels vague (like how the CDC's list of symptoms of coronavirus is "symptoms can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath"). And that doesn't go down well. We have a profound psychological need for control, Gardner says. Saying I dont know, and Im OK with that is difficult for us.
Difficult or not, you need to take reasonable precautions and let things unfold, Gardner says. Its practice in controlling what you can and letting go of what you cant control. What you can control: Washing your hands frequently. Not going to the office when youre sick. Considering donning a mask? Read Elizabeth Rosenthals Common Sense Beats Masks Op-Ed before you do.
Remember that as a human, you dont like not knowing. And youre prone to coming to false conclusions when fear is involved. Those two realitiesplus the reality that COVID-19 could be very disruptivewill make you uncomfortable. Learn that thats expected, and dont let it freak you out. But wash your hands.