Telling people 'don't panic' over coronavirus doesn't work. Here's what you should say instead, according to social scientists.

Telling people 'don't panic' over coronavirus doesn't work. Here's what you should say instead, according to social scientists.
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  • "Don't panic" has been a common refrain from government leaders, public health professionals, and laypeople who are trying to keep others calm in the midst of outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.
  • And while it's true that panicking will only hurt the situation, telling people not to do it without providing actionable and consistent safety information won't work.
  • Social scientists talked to Business Insider about why sometimes saying "don't panic" can backfire, and how to actually help people stay calm in the face of a coronavirus outbreak.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It's a golden rule of romantic relationships: Don't tell your upset partner to "calm down." It doesn't work, and it usually backfires.

But that directive on a population level in the form of "don't panic" is a common refrain from health professionals, government officials, and laypeople as they aim quell people's fears about the novel coronavirus, which has so far infected more than 116,000 people, and killed more 4,000, including 27 in the US.

Like "calm down," simply saying "don't panic," without providing advice on how to do so or consistent facts that ease the mind, is largely ineffective, social scientists told Insider.

Here's why saying "don't panic" and nothing else doesn't work, and how to encourage people, including yourself, to remain calm in the face of a changing global health crisis instead.


Suggest things to do or focus on to alleviate their panic

Rosemary Taylor, an associate professor of sociology and community health at Tufts University, told Business Insider that "people need ways of alleviating their anxiety, so clear instructions about risks and behaviors are essential to allay fears. "

In the case of protecting yourself from the coronavirus, that means, at the very least, taking precautions like washing and drying your hands thoroughly and frequently, and avoiding people who are sick.

If you're at higher risk for contracting and getting sick from the illness, like older Americans and those with conditions including heart disease and diabetes, that might mean stocking up on food and necessary medications and supplies so you can avoid places like grocery stores that can pack a crowd, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a media briefing on Monday.

Higher-risk people might consider cancelling or postponing unnecessary travel plans, too, she added.

Taking action can also mean finding ways to help those around you, maybe by bringing an elderly neighbor their groceries or medications. "Giving people the opportunity to work on behalf of their community allows them to feel less isolated and afraid," Taylor said. "The goal should be to strengthen social solidarity as well as reduce panic."

coronavirus uk


People also need to trust other people and systems are doing their jobs

There's only so much action individuals can take to ease their anxiety; people also have to feel confident that broader institutions are taking necessary steps to protect them too, Taylor, who teaches a course called "Epidemics: Plagues, Peoples and Politics," said.

"It's important to instill confidence that appropriate measures are being taken and to relieve feelings of helplessness," she said.

That means CEOs, school administrators, local government officials, the federal government, and even community gyms and grocery stores should be clear about how they're protecting citizens if they want to help quell panic, even if that means preparing to close down a gym or move classes offline.

Rather than approaching those preparations as an expectation things are only going downhill, leaders should shift to say, "We're trying to get in front of this, and if does [get worse] we've got contingency plans in place," Anthony F. Lemieux, a social psychologist and director of Georgia State University's Global Studies Institute, told Insider.


It's understandable that people are feeling confused about whether or not to panic right now

Hearing "don't panic" but seeing increasing death tolls, stock market collapses, and maps illustrating rapidly spreading infections is a recipe for, well, panic, Lemieux said.

The messaging has to be consistent to be effective, and in the case of the novel coronavirus, it has been anything but, with President Trump first saying the outbreak "may get a little bigger; it may not get bigger at all," while health officials said it was inevitable that the coronavirus would spread inside the US.

Social media has also "spread erroneous rumors" about fatality rates, Taylor said.

News media has delivered conflicting messages, with outlets like Fox News downplaying the threat in a dangerous way, the Global Editor-in-Chief of Insider Inc., Nicholas Carlson, wrote.

In order for people to take the threat seriously without panic, Taylor said the US needs "government transparency, a robust belief in scientific data, and a faith in international cooperation - to all of which President Trump has expressed antagonism in the past."

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Take action, limit your media exposure, and reach out to others

Outside of taking reasonable precautions to protect yourself and your family, coronavirus-related stress can be managed in part by setting parameters around how much you read about or watch news about the issue, Julie Pike, a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who specializes in anxiety disorders, previously told Insider.

Too much exposure, especially from sketchy sources, can make consumers overestimate threat and underestimate their coping abilities, which is a recipe for anxiety.

Cheri McDonald, a psychologist in Westlake Village, California, who specializes in treating trauma, added that remembering "we're all in this together" can help, too.

"If you're feeling anxiety, lean on each other," she said, adding that feeling connected and supported is good for the immune system, even if you must making those connections virtually. By contrast, she added, "fear erodes us and isolation erodes us."


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