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Coronavirus and panic

Valeria SBS (2)
This post provides an overview of the interview our psychologist Valeria Zoteyeva gave on SBS Radio on Friday 13 of March. It looks at the following questions: Why do we feel like panicking about Coronavirus? Why panicking about coronavirus is not helpful? What can be more helpful things to do? And what to do when already panicking?

It’s been a crazy start of a year in Australia, and many of you are tired and feel down. Many of us had to cancel exciting things and many feel they didn’t have a summer. 

So, coronavirus is here. By now we all know that there are risks, but we do not fully know yet what they are, because the virus is new and we can see that the mortality rates vary from country to country.

We can also see that the way people are dealing with this situation varies a lot too: from total panic of buying everything like the end of the (toilet paper) time has come, to not believing that it is real and saying that it is some kind of political manipulation.

What is important to understand that everyone is responding to this tricky situation according to their own past experiences and the way those experiences were dealt with. To put it in other way – when people either go in denial or they panic they relate not to what actually happening in the reality, but to a projection, they put onto it. The purpose of this projection is to make current situation which contains a lot of uncertainty and risks to feel more familiar and to best fit into their perception of the reality.

Why do we feel like panicking about Coronavirus?


When situation becomes challenging and it has a high degree of uncertainty, it affects everyone and it puts pressure on everyone’s psychological system, making us more vulnerable emotionally. The purpose of feeling more vulnerable and sensitive is for us to be more alert and to see the signs of danger as soon as possible. The problem with this is that a lot of people have been hurt one way of another, and fear of that pain happening again, that makes their level of distress to go through the roof. When it happens they no longer connected to the actual reality as it happens, but to their fearful fantasies of how the world might be now and later.

Why panicking about coronavirus is not helpful?

  1. Panicking is actually putting you at a higher risk of getting sick, as it is exhausting your internal system. Research shows that high levels of distress can impact normal function of our bodily systems, including the immune system and the respiratory system, compromising which puts you at higher risk of developing complications from coronavirus.
  2. Acting on panicking impulses provides some temporary relief, but because panicking actions are usually not connected to the actual problems in the reality – the outcomes of these actions are not adequately helpful. This fact that sooner or later becomes obvious and then all unpleasant sensations rush back in. 
  3. When we are in a state of panic, which as I mentioned above is our fearful response to our projection, we are not fully alert in the reality, which puts us at risk missing the actual danger signals as they occur.
  4. Because we can not objectively assess situation around us in a state of panic and to have access to our higher mind, we might have tendency to act impulsively in a way that can be harmful to us. What we have to understand is that even though it feels easier to go with the impulse, it is us – who will be paying the price for our actions anyway.


How not to panic? 


One of the biggest messages I want you to take from this page is that NOT panicking is an action, which might require effort on your behalf. And this action is impossible unless you make a conscious choice NOT TO PANIC. I hope that the reasons provided above can motivate some of you who were affected by panic to change your minds to more helpful mindset.

What can be more helpful things to do?


Firs of all, accept that this unpleasant situation is happening, and that it is not easy. The current situation is uncertain and it looks somewhat scary for vulnerable populations. Understand, that it doesn’t feel good that it happens around, but that controlling your feelings and panicking will not change the reality around you.

Secondly, we need to be aware and follow the safety rules advised by the World Health Organisation and our local health agencies, as much as possible. Specifically: try to keep as much social distance as possible, and take a very good care of your personal hygiene.

I know that for some people following all of the recommendations is hard if not possible. But this is a challenge for us as a humanity – how conscientious as an Earth citizen we can be – and that is doing everything we can for our society to get damaged as little as possible, while taking reasonable steps to protect ourselves.

Why do we need for the society as a whole to be damaged as little as possible, why not say, it is not my problem, which I know can be tempting for many? Well, the answer is simple, it is us who will then pay the price for its recovery.

Thirdly, you know yourself better than anyone (well, maybe your wife or mother knows a little more 😉 ). Take care of what helps you to stay healthy and fit.

Also, even though within the helpful limitations, take care of things and relationships that are important for you and don’t forget to have fun. Try to turn this experience into something that you can grow and in some way benefit from.

If you are with your family – engage in activities that will be fun and bring you all closer together. Make this time to work on the quality of your family relationships. Have some fun.

If you are living on your own – take time to be mindful about what really matters to you, practice self-care. Read a book and/or watch some good positive series. Listen to music. Go for a walk. Do some stretches. Call someone. Clear your head.

What do to when I am already panicking?


When we panic it means that our body is experiencing a very high levels of tension deep inside of our body. Sometimes the experience is so deep, that we are not even aware of having tension. When it is so high we might instead feel dizzy, or lightheaded, or have tunneled vision, or have sounds in our ears. We can also feel nauseous, or have weakness in our legs, or in our body overall. We can also feel heavy, and flat.

When it happens:

  • Try to sit in a comfortable position, and gently press your feet into the floor, consciously activating large muscles in your body. But doing this you will bring tension from deep within more to the surface.
  • Focus on exhaling all of the air you can from your lungs.
  • We aware of the temptation to rush, to run around, to control everything you can. Try to slow down processes within your body.
  • Focus on your feet pressed into the ground and the way you are exhaling air from your lungs.
  • Notice the pace and how deeply you exhale the air.

Repeat this routine till you feel more present. When you feel more present it might be helpful to re-read the part of this post which explains why panicking is not helpful and what are more helpful things to do.

Remember, that we all have a choice about how to react, and you don’t have to follow actions of the people, which you disagree with, even though it sometimes feels easier to give in into a state of a panicking herd. If you do notice doing it, try to bring yourself back to reality, adequate reflection on your risks, and to reasonable self-care.

Please let us know if you have further questions – I am here to help as much as I can.


Valeria Zoteyeva, Health Psychologist
This post is an intellectual property of the Melbourne Health Psychology Centre (c) 2020

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