The coronavirus, or COVID-19, was recently named a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is without question that the novel coronavirus involves physical transmission among communities and nations, but what about psychological transmissions? The one constituent that may be more contagious than the respiratory illness itself is the pervasive emotional turmoil. Fear, panic, anxiety, consternation, and ambivalence are just a few examples. Humans were designed to be emotional creatures. Without fear, the brain would not know to release norepinephrine to flee from threats; without happiness and sadness, dopamine and serotonin would have no purpose, and without acetylcholine, the heart would not have a steady beat.
Emotions are a cluster of feelings that involve physical responses, and changes in cognitive and behavioral evaluations to serve as a biological survival mechanism. They work in conjunction with both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to tell the brain important information on how to properly respond to the stimuli presented. Emotional contagion is the propensity to unconsciously and automatically mimic body language, facial expressions, and behavior with that of another person.
The psychological phenomenon of emotional contagion would not exist without mirror neurons. Humans were evolved to be social animals and as a result our brain has built in systems like mirror neurons to cater to social cognition. Mirror neurons act as brain cells that respond equally when one performs an action and when they witness someone else performing the same action. For example, mirror neurons are why people yawn when they see someone else yawn, or with regards to the coronavirus, why people panic when they witness panic around them. Social scientists believe that the more intense the emotion is being expressed, the more contagious it is, and consequently the greater psychological distress there is on top of the pandemic itself.
In today’s world, emotional contagion can be to thank for the lack of toilet paper in stores, the foot-long grocery store receipts, and empty canned-food shelves. Panic might be the most contagious part of coronavirus. Emotional contagion is a key survival mechanism and can be a good thing in healthy doses, but if prolonged, it could lead to mass psychogenic illness or mass hysteria. Emotional contagion is nothing new. In fact, social science saw the same thing with the 2008 H1N1 Pandemic. Given that there is a steady increase of confirmed cases in the U.S. not to mention the President’s 15 Days to Slow the Spread plan, anxiety is only proliferating. If communities are not careful and aware of the emotional toll COVID-19 is taking on the minds of Americans, a mass hysteria epidemic may be at stake.
Mass hysteria is another psychological phenomenon related to emotional contagion but more severe. It has several names ranging from mass psychogenic illness, to mass psychogenic disorder but is characterized by the same criterion. The CDC defines mass hysteria as an “unexplained illness that occurs in a line-of-sight pattern, lack of illness in persons who share the same environment, and physical symptoms from psychological stress such as dizziness and digestion issues.”
Emotional contagion is a reality whether there is a pandemic or not, but it is just more imperative that it is acknowledged during a pandemic to reduce as much anxiety as possible. It is more crucial now than ever in such a national health crisis to prioritize both physical and mental health.