The Science of Why We Panic
National Geographic Magazine India|May 2020
FROM PREHISTORIC TO MODERN TIMES, OUR ANXIOUS BRAINS CAN SHORT-CIRCUIT WHEN FACED WITH THE SCARY UNKNOWN.
AMY MCKEEVER

SINCE THE CORONAVIRUS began spreading across the world, we’ve learned a lot about the lengths to which people will go for a roll of toilet paper, a tube of hand sanitizer or a face mask. As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increases and states and countries lock down large gatherings or shops to promote social distancing, these uncertainties are driving the so-called “panic-buying” that’s emptying store shelves quicker than they can be restocked.

Panic-buying supplies is one way humans have coped with uncertainty over epidemics since at least 1918 during the Spanish flu—when people in Baltimore raided drug stores for anything that would prevent the flu or relieve its symptoms—all the way up to the 2003 SARS outbreak.

“When you’re seeing extreme responses. It’s because people feel like their survival is threatened and they need to do something to feel like they’re in control,” explains Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

But what exactly causes us to panic—and how can we keep our cool in a high-stress time like a pandemic? It depends on how different areas of the brain play along with each other.

Human survival has depended on both fear and anxiety, requiring us to react immediately when we encountered a threat (think: the lion around the corner) as well as being able to mull over perceived threats (where are the lions tonight?)

Panic starts when a negotiation of sorts in the brain goes awry. Koenen explains that the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, wants us to get out of harm’s way immediately—and it doesn’t care how we avoid the lion.

But the prefrontal cortex, which handles your behavioral responses, insists that we think the lion situation through first. When might we run into a lion again, and what to do about it? Sometimes anxiety can get in the way. Rather than talking directly to the parts of our brains that are good at planning and making decisions, the prefrontal cortex is confused by all the cross-talk between other parts of the brain that are determined to play out all the possible scenarios for how we might become a lion’s dinner.

Panic happens when the whole thing short-circuits. While our prefrontal cortex wants to think about where the lions maybe tomorrow night, our amygdala is in overdrive.

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