Understanding human behaviours – panic is a normal response to emergency

A common question we asked ourselves during the pandemic was, "Why do people react in the way they do?"

As you are aware, our human brains are always ready to act in times of lurking danger. Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors who had to fend off predators in the wilderness, modern-day life brings about its own set of new threats like terrorism, natural catastrophes and pandemic outbreaks. 

When we encounter or witness an emergency situation, the emotional system of our brain (the amygdala) gets activated together with regions of the cortex (cognitive system) that analyse and interpret behaviour. In times of stress and uncertainty, the thinking part of our brain gets overridden by the emotional system, resulting in panic and groupthink behaviour (also termed 'herd mentality').

This translates into a phenomenon known as survival mode or fight-or-flight response, which is driven by the need for self-preservation, protection and safety. Such primal instincts are activated in our present-day crises and because of this, it’s possible to hyper-focus on the virus. 

Consequences of panic responses

While our brains react to keep us safe and protected, the resulting panic unintentionally leads to massive consequences in our society. 

We have witnessed discriminatory behaviours amongst populations all over the world, as well as unprecedented fights for resources. Tension, stress and anxiety are at an all-time high as we worry about our health, our job security, and the larger economy.

Panic buying also led to stocks running out. Consequently, people who were sick found themselves deprived of essential items like masks and food supplies. 

Six tips on managing anxiety during COVID-19

1. Acknowledge our common vulnerability

It is helpful to acknowledge that all humans struggle with fear to varying degrees. Validating and acknowledging our fears or those of others, and knowing that we may get triggered by each other, is the first step to managing our anxieties.

Name the fear and pause to consider our responses. Resource-sharing could unite rather than divide our community.

2. Respect each other

Be assertive with your feelings of discomfort or anxiety should this topic be too difficult for you. Also, notice if this topic escalates fear and anxiety in your friends and family. Listen and respect if they prefer not to engage in this.

3. Exercise individual responsibility

Be proactive by following basic hygiene principles and protective measures from the World Health Organization (WHO) to keep yourself and others around you safe.

Try to withhold judgment on others as we do not know their family's circumstances and the unique needs of each household.

Don’t underestimate the impact of our individual efforts on the overall community.

4. Limit the time of your research and media exposure. Expand your source of information and entertainment and do something that makes you feel positive or in control

The pandemic continues to be covered by the Australian Government's Department of Health. Be intentional with your choice of information and turn to reliable sources such as the Department of Health or other trusted organisations such as the World Health Organization.

5. Physical distancing, not social isolation

Please remember that practising social and physical distancing is different from socially isolating ourselves.

Social isolation is detrimental to our emotional and psychological wellbeing. In times of stress and anxiety, it is important for us to continue to remain connected and provide support for one another.

6. Seek professional help if fear and anxiety are hindering your daily functioning

If you are struggling to cope, please seek professional help from a counsellor or psychologist. You can access these services through a Mental Health Care Plan via your GP.

More information

  • Australian Government Department of Health – The Department of Health has developed a collection of resources for the general public, health professionals and industry about coronavirus (COVID-19), including translated resources. 
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides reliable information about the coronavirus such as its symptoms, steps you can take to protect yourself, and what to do if you are affected.
  • World Health Organization – The World Health Organization provides information and guidance regarding the current outbreak of coronavirus disease.


Soak Mun Lee 
Soak Mun Lee is a registered Senior Clinical Psychologist with RCH PICU and a Board-Approved Clinical Supervisor. She trained in Australia and has more than 10 years of experience providing psychological assessment and therapies for a broad range of counselling and mental health issues. 

Professor Vicki Anderson
Professor Vicki Anderson leads the Clinical Sciences theme at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and is a paediatric neuropsychologist, working across clinical, research and academic sectors. She is the Director of Psychology at The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne.