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Coronavirus and the contagion of fear

Coronavirus, anxiety and fear
Coronavirus, anxiety and fear 07:17

Julie Beitman has been correspondent David Pogue's friend and neighbor for over 15 years. But he's never seen her like this – repeatedly washing her hands, or wiping down her counter.

"I'm very upset about this," Beitman said. "I'm upset. I watch the news around the clock. And that's all I think about."

"Has it brought you to tears?" Pogue asked.

"It has!" she laughed

Like everybody else, she's doing everything in her power to avoid getting infected by the 2020 coronavirus.

"I've never touched a doorknob or a handle," she said. "My boots are all worn out on the toe!"

"You're flushing toilets with your foot?"

"Always. Always."

And so,, like many other Americans, she's stocked up on supplies. She's even made her own stylish face masks. "That'll protect me. It'll cover from the top [of my nose] to the bottom [of my face]," she said.

Correspondent David Pogue and his neighbor Julie Beitman try out her homemade face masks, created in response to the coronavirus outbreak. CBS News

Even before the coronavirus was considered a pandemic, Beitman was taking all the rational, recommended steps, like washing your hands a lot, coughing into your elbow, and avoiding crowds, doorknobs, and touching your face.

But fear is also making people do irrational things, sometimes dangerous things: panic-buying toilet paper; attacking people just for looking Asian; buying unproven home remedies; or gargling with bleach. (NO! DON'T DO THIS!)

David DeSteno is a psychology professor at Northeastern University who's studied how fear can drive us batty. "We're supposed to be the rational animal," he said. "But there's a lot going on in your head that's kind of under your conscious radar."

Pogue asked, "Under what circumstances do our brains run away with the fear?"

"They run away with the fear if we don't have accurate information," he said. "Like that guy over there on the subway, he looks like he's gonna sneeze and, like, he's sweaty. Does he have the coronavirus or not? I don't know. When you don't know the information, it gives a lot more range for your emotions to fill in the blanks."

So, would Mr. Spock from "Star Trek" be able to avoid having his emotions fill in those blanks? "Yes," said DeStano. "He would have an accurate assessment of the virus risk."

Rajita Sinha, a Yale psychiatry professor and director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Stress Center, said, "The stress circuit is really there to biologically and mentally, physically help us respond to stress, and to help us adapt and survive in the world."

She said that three factors can make fear spiral out of control: "The first, if it is unpredictable. And the second if it's uncontrollable. And the third is if it's sustained and chronic."

Pogue asked, "So, how then does this virus fit into these three categories?"

"Unfortunately, we have all three classes of problematic stress," Sinha replied.

"You mentioned this issue of control – so, is there a sense that some of the wilder things that people are doing, gargling with bleach, spraying Chinese-looking people in the subway, are people trying to get control?" Pogue asked.

"Absolutely," Sinha replied. "We go to the extreme sometimes to gain control, to have a sense that we can do something about it."

Mark Jurgenson was a passenger on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that quarantined its passengers for two weeks in Japan. At some point, Jurgenson and his wife got the virus. He's now quarantined at his home in St. George, Utah.

Pogue asked, "So, how was your cruise?"

"Yeah. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" he laughed. "I have never had and continue to not have any symptoms. Not even slight cold symptom. Nothing."

But Jurgenson and his wife have experienced irrational fear in another form: Hostile comments online from other people. Among the comments about them he heard were: "Let's find out where he is and go get him." "Don't you dare come back to St. George. And you'll regret it if you come to St. George."

"They were threatening you guys?" Pogue asked.

"With the amount of fear this has generated, I should have known that some people would be fearful, and often the way people react to fear is to get angry."

Now, we can't help what we feel. Our brains evolved to respond to dangers that we sense around us. But DeSteno says that we're now sensing danger around the clock on our screens. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing; we want to be informed," he said. "But we kind of need a software update, right? Our brain hasn't evolved to be able to adjust to what we're seeing in the media, versus what's really in our local environment."

Of course, it doesn't help that virus movies like "Contagion" and "Outbreak" have painted a horrific picture in our minds. And social media, like Facebook and Twitter, only make matters worse.

"The other thing we know about emotions is they're contagious," DeStano said. "On social media, everybody's talking about the threat of coronavirus. Not only am I gonna think that that's more frequent, but I'm gonna see that fear as a rational signal from them, and it's going to make me wanna respond accordingly."

Pogue asked Albert Ko, the department chair of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, to help us distinguish rational responses from the irrational ones about coronavirus.

"So, can you get it from a package sent from China?"


"Can you get it from sweat?"


And about the ways to kill the virus: "Soap and water's the best," Ko said.

Hand sanitizer? "It has to have more than 60% alcohol."

Antibiotics?  "No. Certainly not," said Ko. "So, this is a virus. Antibiotics work against fungi and bacteria, so antibiotics won't work."

Remember: Stress, anxiety and fear can be useful. They can drive us to taking healthy actions. The trick is to recognize when our fear has gone off the rails and become dangerous.

Because, as professor DeSteno said, Right now, we're in the perfect storm. Because we all feel anxious because of what we're seeing. But most of us can't think like epidemiologists. Most of us can't think statistically. And so, that fear is filling in the blanks and making us think everything is more dangerous."

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joe Frandino. 

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