How COVID-19 Hacks Your Brain

Peggy Yin COVID-19 Apr 01, 2020

Within minutes of the announcement that COVID-19’s spread to the US was a matter of when, not if, my mother sent my sister, my dad and me on a scavenger hunt around the house for one item only: hand sanitizer.

Three closets, two bathrooms, and a kitchen later, we dumped our collective findings onto the newly Lysoled countertop and assessed our efforts. Two ancient freebies from some county fair and one travel-sized Purell with a stared back at us, expectant.

My sister was the first to act. She seized the Purell by its glossy strap, marched away, and then there were two.

My dad and I had somewhere to go that night, so by default the other bottles were ours. Before we left, my mother made us swear we would apply the contents religiously and hide the bottles from plain sight so they wouldn’t be stolen. The next day, she ventured out to CVS in pursuit of her own—surprisingly, she was victorious!

After waltzing back into the house with the coveted luminous green of that aloe-vera-alcohol-elixir in tow, she proceeded to give a very dramatic rundown of how an employee tried to wrench the bottle from her hands, claiming that it was not supposed to be on the shelf.

That was February. Since then, police have been fending off 911 calls for toilet paper, governments have been buying face masks off consumers for use in hospitals, mass hysteria has been feeding into discrimination against Asian Americans, and political leaders have been fueling conspiracy theories. One word explains all: fear.


Note: this article is split into three sections to examine how fear affects behavior and health, and what you can do to maximize your well-being. Happy reading!


Let’s start with the panic buyers.

Clinical psychologist Stephen Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, defines fear in his interview with Discover magazine as an adaptive “emotional, behavioral, and physiological coping reaction to perceived threats.” When fear is intense and persistent, e.g. during pandemics, it can override rational thought processes by implementing a “better safe than sorry” approach to living; as pictures of empty shelves and quotas on purchases and long queue lines go viral, they elicit the fear of scarcity, which in turn inspires people to overstock on items just in case they run out. The more people that fall victim to panic buying, the more bandwagon effect takes over. Consequently, scarcity ensues.

How can we apply this to explain the mass shortages of particular items? Well, as Mr. Snow explained in Holocaust class one day, think about it from the point of view of a consumer. If you were to buy a unit of soup, that would be a can of soup. Removing a can from an aisle full of soup cans wouldn’t make a discernible difference to shoppers passing by. But a unit of toilet paper isn’t the roll—it’s the whole dang pack! Removing a pack from a display creates a conspicuous dent. Factor in fear of scarcity, and consumers are confronted with a “buy it now or never” sort of deal.

(While we’re on the subject, if you’re interested in how long your toilet paper will last, check out this calculator here).

Adding fuel to the fire is the uncertainty component of the virus: COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, and only the seventh one known to us. The range of symptoms runs the gamut from mild to life-threatening, and can take around two weeks to show. As of now, no treatment for the virus exists, which means that prevention is of utmost importance. Taylor points out that the recommended preventative measures, i.e. washing hands and covering coughs, may appear too ordinary to cover a threat of such magnitude and uncertainty, leading people to overcompensate by hoarding medical supplies such as face masks and even ventilators in an attempt to feel in control of the situation. However, by doing so, fear-driven consumers may actually be withholding resources that would be of much more use to the healthcare system, which is experiencing shortages in medical equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE).

In such uncertain times, any sense of security is welcome. That’s why fear is a hotbed for the spread of conspiracy theories, which offer epistemic, environmental, and social control to believers. Notable victims include a top Chinese government official who claimed that the US military was responsible for bringing the virus to Wuhan and President Trump who retaliated by calling COVID-19 the China/Chinese virus. Though they both have since recanted their statements, language, especially that of leaders, plays a potent role in shaping how people make sense of this new normal. Language that spreads misinformation can influence millions to subscribe to falsehoods irrevocably. Keep yourself informed with trusted, objective sources, and don’t follow pointed fingers.

The coronavirus threat also attacks society through dividing the population when it most needs to unite. Reports of both verbal and physical harassment against Asian Americans have been correlated with an increase in the number of them buying guns to protect themselves; in an Instagram post deleted due to public backlash, UC Berkeley excused xenophobia by naming it a common reaction to outbreak. Now, xenophobia is NOT excusable or justifiable, but it is explainable. According to Taylor, it’s the product of the behavioral immune system, which is the altering of our actions to avoid potential infection. This could be beneficial in that it offers motivation for social distancing, but extreme measures that offer no protective value include illogical behaviors fueled by fear of the unknown. Society must realize that COVID-19 does not discriminate with respect to race, gender, age—anyone can catch it. Harnessing our collective strength in full force is our best bet against fighting the virus.

We've taken a look at how fear impacts behavior. Now let's understand how fear affects our health.

A quick crash course on human brain anatomy: the three parts of the human brain (noted in different colors on the figure below) determine the complexity of an organism's behavior. Like blocks, each successive part is built on top of the others in the order of brain stem + cerebellum, limbic system, and finally, the cortex; the most basic organisms with brains have only the brain stem + cerebellum (which coordinate necessary life functions such as breathing), more complex organisms have a limbic system and brain stem + cerebellum, and the most complex organisms, such as humans, have a cortex , a limbic system, and a brain stem + cerebellum.

Highly oversimplified diagram of brain. Graphic by Peggy Yin.

Emotions arise from our limbic systems and cortex. The amygdala, a region of the limbic system, assesses threats and directs the body to act accordingly. It’s responsible for triggering the most immediate response to danger: fight-flight-or-freeze. This response, which happens unconsciously and activates the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system, releases adrenaline into the bloodstream, leading to physiological changes including increased blood glucose concentrations, diversion of blood from the digestive system to the muscular system, perspiration, etc. These functional adaptations help us in the short run by energizing us to eliminate stressors from our lives immediately.

Humans also have a remarkable ability to adapt to stressors that cannot be eliminated immediately. The figure below depicts Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which describes human response to stress:

Figure depicts Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome. Graphic by Peggy Yin

The stressor is first introduced in Phase I, setting off alarm that causes a decrease in ability to cope with stress followed by mobilization of the body’s resources which raises the body’s resilience in Phase II. However, our bodies cannot maintain this heightened state of arousal for long. When resources are used up, permanent organ changes and health problems such as hypertension may develop. As the body enters Phase III, exhaustion, it succumbs to the stressor, and subsequently is vulnerable to fatigue, depression, impaired motor function, sleeplessness, etc.

So, humans can handle stress, but prolonged stress has negative and potentially irreversible physiological and mental effects. Fortunately, the other portion of the brain involved in producing emotion, the cortex, can drastically improve our ability to deal with negative emotions and stress. By consciously processing situations in context with memories, experiences, etc., the cortex applies meaning to stressors we face. How we attribute these stressors affects the way we respond, which has implications for our well-being beyond the duration of the pandemic.

In other words, it’s crucial you train your brain to sustain.

Judson A. Brewer, a professor at Brown University, has two pieces of advice: First, become aware that fear, panic, and anxiety are not conducive to our survival in uncertain situations and often lead to dangerous impulsive behaviors as well as negative mental and physical effects. Second, replace worrying/stressing behavior with rewarding behavior. Once you’ve calmed down, your cortex will have regained control and you can proceed to think rationally. Before you give it a try though, there are a couple more things to consider that may be impairing your perception:

  • Unfamiliar risks are subconsciously assessed as a greater threat than familiar ones; likewise with uncontrollable vs. controllable risks. You can combat this by staying as up to date as possible (tip: stick with the science) but understand that questions that are currently unanswered will cause you to feel more fear
  • Your brain comes equipped with natural thinking hacks, or shortcuts, known as heuristics; they allow us to evaluate systems quickly and generally, accurately, but occasionally they can mess with your point of view. Two heuristics in particular are often the culprits: (1) representativeness heuristic allows us to make assumptions of a person or thing through comparison with the average person or thing from a corresponding category, e.g. though some severe cases of COVID-19 are infected young, healthy people, statistical information may lead us to believe that if a person is experiencing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms they are old and have pre-existing health conditions, and (2) availability heuristic allows us to predict the likelihood of events based on the strength of our memories with those events—and events associated with strong emotions create strong memories—e.g. seeing horrific news on the media regarding COVID-19 deaths could lead you to the think the death rate is higher than it is
  • Seeing is believing: the more you read something, the more likely it is that you will believe it, and this could lead to you believing in false information. Teach yourself how to spot fake news.
  • Confirmation bias leads to self deception: be wary of believing in information simply because you agree with it/desire it to be true.

Be realistic when examining your concerns and ability to cope. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t. Implement stress-relieving methods that have worked for you in the past. Reflect on the altruistic reasons for social distancing, quarantine or isolation—remember, you are protecting those who are most vulnerable by preventing COVID-19’s potential transmission to them through you.

Psychological research predicts that while social distancing, quarantining, or isolating you may experience fear and anxiety from the threat of contracting the virus or losing security, depression and boredom from not being able to partake in normal activities, anger, frustration or irritability from loss of freedom, and stigmatization. The restrictions imposed nationwide during this time may result in you experiencing psychological reactance, or the desire to disobey and maintain personal freedom; if you do, recognize that this is a natural reaction and choose to resist this urge. Your quarantine will help national quarantine end sooner. Research also suggests creating and following a daily routine to preserve a sense of order and purpose, staying virtually connected with others, and relying on pets for emotional support. It’s perfectly normal to be anxious, but if you experience symptoms of extreme stress which include insomnia, inability to carry out daily tasks, and substance abuse you need to reach out to a professional health-care provider.

On her podcast Unlocking Us, renowned vulnerability researcher Brené Brown offers the following tips and strategies for moving on from fear and anxiety towards proactively developing a long-term plan:

  1. Limit your news intake: find one or two reliable sources on science and epidemiology to keep yourself updated, but do NOT overwatch.
  2. Sleep, move your body, eat well, and create an environment with those you interact with for more mindful treatment of each other during this time, e.g. limiting negative comments, supporting corny jokes, etc.
  3. Do not rank your suffering: restrain yourself from comparing your suffering to others. Permit yourself to feel—emotions don’t go away when denied, rather buried emotions invite shame using the “other people have it worse” comparison and is the antithesis of empathy. It is more than okay to be disappointed, frustrated, sad over graduation, jprom, or not being able to hang out with your friends.
  4. Remember that empathy is not finite. Brown points out: “The exhausted doctor in the ER room in New York doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from yourself or your coworker who lost her job. The surest way to ensure that you have a reserve of passion and empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings.”
  5. Don’t judge yourself or others: It is okay to complain and let yourself feel emotions while still responding to others with empathy.

A final thought: This is a time for us to learn about ourselves and prepare for the future! Be proactive in doing your part for yourself and the world —when you take care of yourself, you take care of the world.

“The exhausted doctor in the ER room in New York doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from yourself or your coworker who lost her job. The surest way to ensure that you have a reserve of passion and empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings.”  Brené Brown

Peggy Yin

Peggy Yin is The Current’s founder. In addition to being an aspiring cognitive neuroscientist, she's an award-winning writer, vocalist, flutist, and kazooist! She is currently attending Harvard.

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