The Catch-22 of the Pandemic Panic

The coronavirus seems to be all we are talking about and thinking about. If we aren’t suffering from the virus itself, we’re marinating in the stress of financial concerns, disrupted schedules, social isolation and the psychological discomfort of the uncertainty of it all. It’s scary. But how we respond to it may be more harmful.

Anxiety thrives on uncertainty. 

When we feel like we have no control over a threat or danger, such as the current coronavirus situation, the increase in anxiety results in overestimating the threat and underestimating our ability to cope with it.  Some anxiety is normal, but it’s really easy for anxiety to snowball into fear and panic mode –  the perfect conditions for irrational decisions, bad behavior, and cognitive decline.

And here’s a catch-22: The more you stress, the more vulnerable you can become to viruses because stress compromises the very immune systems we are counting on to fight the virus.

To really understand how the body responds to threats and fear, one must understand how the parasympathetic system and sympathetic system work together to keep us alert to danger and then calm us down once the danger has passed.

The sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to danger or stress. A flash flood of hormones sends extra blood to the muscles all over the body and increases heart rate.  Breathing quickens, delivering fresh oxygen to the brain, and an infusion of glucose is shot into the bloodstream for a quick energy boost. This response occurs so quickly that people often don’t realize it’s taken place. Applied neuroscience research shows that when the sympathetic nervous system is in charge, we experience greater anxiety, irritability, negative mood, and behavioral rigidity.

The parasympathetic nervous system is what enables us to recover from stress, fear, or threat. This is a complementary action, causing a balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic responses – enough alertness to survive and enough calm to prevent the body from overwork. Sometimes called the “rest and digest” system, the parasympathetic system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate and blood pressure, facilitation of digestion and absorption of nutrients, and excretion of waste products.

When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—flooding the body and brain with cortisol and adrenaline—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The aim is to move the belly and diaphragm with the breath and to slow down your breathing. Vagus nerve stimulation occurs when the breath is slowed from our typical 10-14 breaths per minute to 5-7 breaths per minute.

Six simple ways to manage stress and stay healthy during these difficult times: 

  • Unplug. Take breaks from the news on television and social media. A steady diet of pandemic news results in a steady stream of cortisol which weakens the immune system.
  • Take care of your body. Intentional breathing, meditation, good nutrition, regular exercise (even if it is just a daily walk or stretching), and a routine sleep schedule can all contribute to overall mental and emotional health.
  • Create a new routine. Think about the things that you didn’t have time for a few weeks ago.  This is the perfect time to incorporate them into your schedule. Exercise daily, learn a foreign language, start a new hobby, write that book, or organize your house.  You’ll feel more productive and be able to shift your perspective to see this time as an opportunity more than a hardship.
  • Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Make time to call at least one person every day to check-in. If you have access to video chats like Skype or FaceTime, just a few minutes can be a big mood boost. Eye contact and smiling will prompt the release of oxytocin and serotonin – neurotransmitters that counter the effects of cortisol.
  • Find reasons to laugh.  Laughter has been shown to decrease cortisol and increase dopamine – the pleasure and reward chemical – and endorphins – the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain. In addition, laughter increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease.
  • Take regular inventory of your own feelings. In an effort to take care of others, many people forget about self-care. It’s important to create some space in each day to check in with your own emotions.  Give yourself permission to experience your feelings and address them specifically.  If you’re feeling isolated, connect.  If you’re feeling overstimulated, unplug and take a walk.  If you’re feeling scared, find a way to regain control in another area of your life. This is going to be a roller coaster ride, and it’s important to give yourself the time and attention you need.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. I am SO late reading and responding to this, sorry. OMG, I just raised my anxiety! Stop it, Jeff! This is great advice as usual, MH. I really need to focus on the 3rd and last bullets. Oy… Going to share this one right now!

    • Jeff, I am so late on just about everything this week!! I’m so glad you found value in this one and I’m sending you a virtual cup of herbal tea! Thank you, my friend!