When an emerging threat causes widespread panic, a sound advice becomes abundantly clear: Remain calm, carry on with your daily life and resist panicking. We’ve been conditioned to take this advice to heart, and we’re increasingly getting the message that it’s scientifically proven. In fact, a recent study showed that a loss of composure can do exactly that.
Scientists hypothesized that the link between fever and hyper-vigilance is a reaction to the fear and anxiety that accompanies a sudden influx of unwanted news, thoughts and information. They found that people have a “social distance” when their routine is interrupted by information they find distressing, and they’re more likely to react with negative and unhelpful feelings.
This same study also found that these negative emotions are heightened if the news is that nobody else is impacted. Simply put, when it comes to disease, where the collateral damage is not truly assessed, we can suffer from a loss of composure.
My coworkers and I spoke with Dr. Nelesh Bankar, an infectious disease expert and public health consultant, to help us better understand how social distance can affect us when we become overwhelmed by the news, particularly when it comes to infectious diseases.
“When you are listening to what your doctor or nurse has to say about a sick child or an infection, there is a social distance,” says Dr. Bankar. “It is not that they are hiding or looking around. They are simply making sure you have everything you need. There is a built-in, protective relationship between doctor and patient that can be hard to breach.
A news story about a disease where everyone else has been impacted does not have the same social distance. For example, in the New York City heat wave where thousands have died in hospitals, and the risk of contagion has skyrocketed. The new Ebola flare-up in Guinea and Democratic Republic of Congo and the numerous cases of malaria in West Africa suddenly feel very, very close.”
This is exactly why that blast of Red Bull works better than your normal dose of caffeine when you’re doing panic staving. Research finds that people are just plain angrier when they’re feeling anxious. They’re also less productive, patient and open to information or insights. We need to be aware of how social distance can interfere with our ability to control our emotions, in addition to needing more social distance so we can stay positive and productive during these tense times.
How Social Distancing Can Harm Us
In the event of a new contagion, social distance becomes particularly important. If there is a large or slow-moving case that everyone sees online, for example, the fear surrounding a situation can spread to those who have not yet seen firsthand the outbreak. If it’s a disease, this makes people feel more in danger; and if it’s a disease where people are already dead and could die if they get sick, they may feel less safe. “When you’re just some bystander to all this, you get people who feel hysterical and people who feel isolated,” says Dr. Bankar.
Social distance is an important buffer between an individual and their surroundings. Studies have shown that our body unconsciously increases the threshold for instinctive movement when someone isn’t around, but social distance is a very real thing. “When you feel like you’re losing control of what’s going on, then you’re exposed to more dangerous information, more information about the danger, and it can start to feel much worse,” says Dr. Bankar.
The ELDReS™ Intervention
There is a way to fight back against this problem. For those individuals in situation like these, there are apps that look to address these concerns through in-app games. These apps use the following tech principles to prepare for a new time in your life:
Develop a social divide: take it from me, it is very important to be able to distinguish yourself from other people, to be able to develop a feel for their feeling. In situations such as these, you need to take breaks from social media and screens to develop your own emotional distance so you can actually, if need be, dial in your social response and get back in control.
Get out the stickler: take another look at the rules or default settings on the app; the information you are presented with is subject to a lot of scope and context that allows you to see if the person presenting is really the real deal.
Get prepared: In these challenging circumstances, find a plan – a plan that fits your personality, including how to power through an overload of information and feedback. That plan can also help you stay positive and focused on what you.