What are we afraid of?

This is scary stuff. Fear, though, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can both help and hurt us.

Fear evokes decisive behavior, which, ideally, will help us adapt to the threat. In some cases, fear can paralyze, but it’s more likely to galvanize us into action. Which, as all of us are beginning to discover, begs yet another question: Is it the right action?

And this can take us in the wrong direction.

We’re in a perfect storm for misguided behavior. We know the public health threat is very real, but as we search for our best response, facts are few – we’ve got more questions than answers. When emotions run high and knowledge is low, fear will often “fill in the blanks.”

Psychologists say, as fear motivates us to gather and process more information, we’re more selective as we do it. For example, worst case scenarios are more likely to stay with us. As are reports of new cases of coronavirus, its spread, the economic fallout – it ratchets up our emotion and heightens our already-high state of fear. It also pushes out our ability to recognize that a lot of people are doing okay, getting by and calmly, rationally coping with this situation.

Our perceptions, then, are subject to a negativity bias, where fear fills in our gaps in knowledge — we think the worst, first — and we can easily descend into a spiral of fear, with obsessive thinking and behaviors that don’t result in constructive responses, but only encourage more second-guessing, panic and feelings of fear. “Do we have enough toilet paper?” “There’s no more hand sanitizer at Walgreens!”

It’s not just coronavirus that’s contagious

There’ve been pandemics before. The obvious difference now is we’re watching it play out in the context of the most pervasive, powerful, contagion-like communications any of us have ever seen. It is proliferating faster than we can follow on news channels and social media. The images, stories, truths, lies, emotions, and stunningly sudden, bizarre changes to our daily routines allow for no time to process our own emotional status. This surreal, amplified panic is in all of us now to varying degrees. This is fear.

And it may be more contagious than COVID-19.

Taking the public’s temperature

Just as there’s a timeline to the disease, so is there a timeline to our fear. In the past couple weeks, the company we work for, Brado, has analyzed over 5 million tweets using a sentiment filter. Not surprisingly, fear is the dominant sentiment, crowding out a lot of the more neutral pieces of information and public health bulletins.

Likewise, we know that Dr. Google is first stop for many health-related inquiries (about 1 out of 20). In a previous post, a precursor to our current pandemic situation, we put a microscope on what people were asking. Today, that seems little more than a baseline assessment of where this uncharted trajectory of fear would take us.

Two Weeks Ago:

  1. What is the coronavirus?
  2. How many people have died from coronavirus?
  3. How to prepare for the coronavirus?
  4. How did the coronavirus get started?
  5. How is coronavirus spread?

More Recently (March 18th):

  1. How did the coronavirus start?
  2. What is the coronavirus?
  3. How many cases of coronavirus in the US?
  4. How long does coronavirus last?
  5. How many people have died from coronavirus?

The Fear Factor

It’s a subtle shift, yes, but there’s an unmistakable, palpable sense of fear creeping into our hearts and minds. As researchers, we talk with hundreds of doctors and patients about different diseases. With cancer, for example, we research new treatment approaches, the emotions driving treatment decisions and cancer’s impact on medical practices and families.

There is a certain sense of predictability to it. But what we’re seeing now is unlike anything any of us have experienced. Uncertainty, anxiety and upheaval are cancer traits, to be sure. But there is precedent in that disease which, weirdly, is somehow comforting. We have guides, paths and protocols already established, so fear, while still great, is tempered a bit.

Our job is to bring insight by finding the human factor in the data we analyze every day. We have some. We’re missing much. In that gap lies fear – the motivator to act or not act. The more answers we mine, the more confidence and knowledge we’ll have to chart a path forward. As we do, fear will slowly give way to what is factual and actual.

Seeking Relief

As our healthcare system works harder than as it has ever worked to find effective treatment and maybe even a vaccine for COVID-19, maybe we, as researchers, analysts, behavioral scientists and communicators can use our expertise to stem the other contagion we face: runaway fear. Working together, it’s possible.

We’ll continue to focus on the pandemic in this blog. But our lens will be different.

All of us will be weary of being inundated with facts, figures and fibs. What matters — and what will truly determine the course of healthcare going forward — will be the voices of patients and healthcare professionals, who can help us achieve the insight and truths that will be essential to flattening the curve of fear and misinformation. 

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