COVID-19Social Issues

What Makes People Afraid During a Pandemic?

These days, most people are likely watching their family and friends panic and buy numerous supplies in order to go into self-isolation for an indefinite period of time due to the vast spread of COVID-19, “an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus.” Suddenly, doomsday prepping has become the norm as individuals stock up on mass amounts of rice, beans and even toilet paper. Despite a common tendency to say that those who are panicking are overreacting, fear is a completely normal reaction to an event that is dynamic and uncontrollable. 

In a way, the fear circulating the globe is, in part, self-induced. Many read and watch the news everyday, trying to absorb the countless updates and stories about the pandemic. Since the human brain is hardwired to focus heavily on the negative, it can become easy for one to become anxious and over exaggerate their fears. However, what exactly are people afraid of when it comes to a global pandemic? More importantly, why are they afraid? 

Fear has been studied considerably throughout the twentieth century and beyond. John B. Watson’s “Little Albert” experiment, for instance, involved getting a 9-month-old baby named Albert to react fearfully toward furry animals by pairing each sighting of a white rat, which Albert had no problem with previously, with a sharp noise. Afterwards, the rat was brought out with no loud noise pairing, yet Albert remained traumatized and refused to interact with the animal. It was later determined that Albert’s fear extended to all furry animals, including a rabbit and a monkey. Watson thus proved that fear is a process of conditioning by associating situations, sounds and objects with negative feelings and emotions. Therefore, perhaps the reason why many people are so afraid of COVID-19 is because humans naturally associate unpredictability, unpreparedness as well as a lack of control, with feeling weak or vulnerable. This helplessness, in turn, causes people to be afraid during a pandemic.

The Fear of Unpredictability

What Makes People Afraid During a Pandemic?
Humans are naturally afraid of events, such as pandemics, that they cannot rationalize from prior experience, as they do not have the knowledge to define whether the situation will prove beneficial or harmful. According to one study, people endure increased anxiety responses during unpredictable conditions as opposed to predictable conditions. This is otherwise known as anticipatory anxiety. Accordingly, when under the threat of a novel virus that scientists are yet to fully understand, and solutions are not made immediately available, people are likely to panic. From this uncertainty comes the fear of unpredictability.

Even with the statistics and knowledge humanity has gained from enduring past pandemics, there is no way to predict what will happen in this one—when a vaccine will be made, and when these health threats will diminish. One might ask what effects the pandemic will have on their families, their children and their grandchildren. Moreover, what will life be like afterwards? Will there be a major paradigm shift—a total change in the way that people think and act? These are all questions linked to the fear of the unknown that one may consider as COVID-19 affects our daily lives.

Having questions with no immediate answers is not always easy to accept, however doing so is an important part of staying calm during a time of crisis. Families and individuals can do this by understanding that fearing the future only distracts them from the present moment. Additionally, staying informed on advancements in the news but not allowing oneself to get too caught up in the negative is an important factor of maintaining mental health during a pandemic. Generally speaking, instead of worrying about the uncertainty of the current situation, focusing one’s energy on positive outcomes can help to relieve anxiety and stress during unpredictable times.

The Fear of Losing Control

What Makes People Afraid During a Pandemic?

Many people dislike the feeling of not being in control of their own life. However, anyone might feel this desire for control, because it is a basic human need. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for instance, describes safety as one of the things that human beings require most. Security is one of the most important aspects of having control as it allows one the freedom of exploring needs and desires while maintaining balance and restraint. Accordingly, the rising numbers of virus cases seen on various screens each day can make one feel as if the situation is spiraling out of their hands as they begin to lose that freedom to social distancing. In other words, individuals may feel unsafe as a novel virus threatens their health, everyday lives and well-being – things most people are used to having power over. This can therefore be described as the fear of losing control.

The human brain encompasses many different regions that control one’s thoughts, feelings, and emotional responses. In a pandemic, the brain’s amygdala, the part of the brain that detects perceived or real threats in our environment, may become stimulated by serious risks to health and routine. As the amygdala sends signals to the brain that danger is looming in terms of jobs, health and social life, one may begin to fear consequences such as losing savings, restricting social contact and major health issues. The more that daily life is affected, including hobbies, entertainment and education through cancellations and closures, the more that people may feel helpless in a situation seemingly spiraling out of control because it appears as though there is nothing they can do.

As control is an essential part of human existence in that it helps to provide better security for work, home and family life, it is important for one to understand the difference between self-control and control of the exterior (e.g. other people and situations). While self-control can be practiced at any time by learning to regulate emotions and understanding oneself better, exterior control is more difficult to attain because most of it is impossible to change by force. Once one begins to accept the dynamic ways of life between crisis and peak, they may allow themselves to be vulnerable to good and bad change in a way that welcomes growth, new perspectives and letting go of the need for exterior control. 

The Fear of Being Unprepared

What Makes People Afraid During a Pandemic?

There is truth behind the saying, “better safe than sorry.” Such a phrase is the mindset of doomsday preppers who have been hoarding food, medical supplies and other items long before the coronavirus outbreak. Preppers stock up on non-perishables and essential items to prepare themselves for natural disasters and catastrophic events. However, those who do not live the “prepper lifestyle” may currently be facing the fear of being unprepared as their pantries seemingly have nothing compared to what others have.

As businesses are forced to close to enforce social distancing and unemployment rates rise, one may worry about not having enough supplies to last through quarantine or being unable to keep up with living costs. Many times, the fear of being unprepared can be linked to the fear of being imperfect, which comes from comparing one’s own life to the bountiful lives of others. It is important, therefore, to differentiate between the two. Unpreparedness can be classified as not having enough, and imperfection is feeling that one does not have enough. To recognize which one is affecting oneself is key to overcoming such fear, as one realizes that no one is ever fully prepared, and thus ceases to compare themselves to others.

Overcoming the fear of being unprepared is simple. All it requires is understanding what one is dealing with and taking precautionary measures in case circumstances worsen. Taking action by disinfecting one’s home and eating an abundance of immune-boosting foods can help one become prepared to fight the virus should it be needed. Be mindful of others before wiping out supermarket shelves but also remember that it is better to be prepared than unprepared (as much as possible). Overall, practicing good hygiene and self-care, washing hands and social distancing are the best ways to help oneself and others be prepared during this difficult time.

Humans naturally experience fear for different reasons. It is a part of life to feel fear, and with all the chaos in light of COVID-19, it is easy to fall into the spiral of panic. Luckily, there are self-coping strategies that can help individuals feel less worried and fearful, including focusing on the positive, accepting change and vulnerability, as well as preparing oneself mentally and physically. It is a frightening time, but if people and communities begin to learn the reasons behind their fear, they might begin to feel less afraid.


  • Ashley Fernandes

    Ashley is a Canadian writer who specializes in various kinds of writing, from short stories and poetry to thoroughly researched articles.

Want to learn more about INKspire? Check out our organization's website.
This is default text for notification bar