Science

Fear is contagious. Here’s a simple way to protect yourself against it

Apr 29, 2020 /

If you’ve been to a grocery store recently, you’ve probably seen anxious shoppers pushing carts filled with cans of beans or toilet paper — and you might’ve even felt the urge to panic buy, too. Psychologist Susan David says that’s because humans are social creatures and our emotions and actions are deeply influenced by other people.

When it comes to the pandemic, fear and panic are spreading at an alarming rate. How can you experience these difficult feelings without getting overwhelmed? In her new podcast Checking In, David shares how you boost your “immunity” to social contagion.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

“We’ve all experienced social contagion before. We go into a meeting, and one person’s on their cell phone so we take out ours. Unlike infectious diseases, which tend to be transmitted from person to person, you can ‘catch’ behaviors from people you’ve never even come into contact with. One study suggests that if someone in your broader social network puts on the pounds — even someone a degree or two removed from you — your likelihood of gaining weight markedly increases as well.

It’s important to be aware of social contagion in the best of times. But in times of crisis, the phenomenon can have a life-or-death impact.

Just look at your Facebook feed, or turn on cable news and you’ll see how the social contagions can put our own health at risk. When people see their friends and neighbors wearing N-95 masks as they walk their dog or go to the grocery store, many will feel compelled to hoard and stock up on masks themselves. This hoarding has contributed to a shortage of them for healthcare workers fighting the pandemic.

Fear and panic are really powerful emotions, but they’re not ones that we want to do away with. They evolved to help us as a species to survive, to protect ourselves. While we shouldn’t push them away, we also shouldn’t let them take over our lives. Instead of letting them own us, we should remember we own them.

Here’s one way we can do that. When we define our values and get clarity on them, we can open ourselves beyond the emotion of fear or panic that we are feeling right now into other parts of ourselves.

Because we are more than our fear. We are also our intentions, our wisdom, our compassion, and these are all honed and driven and become capable through our sense of what our values are.

To find yourself amidst the chaos and rekindle a sense of who you are, here is a really simple exercise you can do. Sit down for a couple of minutes with a piece of paper in front of you.

Ask yourself this question: “Even in the midst of this chaos, who do I want to be?”

Write for a minute or two. What we know is that this exercise is an incredibly powerful protection against social and emotional contagion. It moves us from the space of thinking about our values as abstract ideas and into ways that our values can become front and center.

As a result, we become more agile, more focused and more connected. And we all need more of all of those things in our lives right now.”

For more strategies to help you navigate your emotions during this stressful time, listen to Checking In with Susan David on Apple Podcasts.