I like to think of myself as a fairly rational and calm person, but in the last few weeks, I have felt close to tears. Since the coronavirus has taken hold, I have seen mass hysteria on an unprecedented scale.

Never before in my lifetime have I witnessed empty supermarket shelves, people walking around wearing masks and daily updates from the government. It seems as if we are living in some kind of nightmare. Common-sense no longer applies. Rules are turned upside down.

In times of hardship and struggle, we pull together, we hug each other and visit our family and friends more often. However, we can’t do that with this new threat. Instead, we must self-isolate and socially distance ourselves.

Our normal routines and daily lives have to follow a strict safety code. No more unnecessary travel. Only shop for essential products. If you do go out, stay 2 metres apart from other people. It’s enough to bring on mass hysteria.

What Is Mass Hysteria?

It is a psychological condition shared by groups of people who feel threatened by a certain event or person. There are many examples of mass hysteria throughout history.

Examples of mass hysteria

Salem Witch Trials

In late February 1692 in a small village called Salem, Massachusetts, two young girls began having fits. They would twitch and shriek uncontrollably. The parish and community blamed the fits on witchcraft and singled out women who had supposedly afflicted these young girls.

Soon the numbers started to rise and eventually many more were showing signs of witchcraft. In 1693, more than 200 women had been accused of witchcraft. In fact, 30 were convicted and 19 were executed.

Remember, only two girls were ill, but it ended up with countless of women being held captive and subject to ridiculous ‘witch tests’.

The Louisiana Twitching

Talking of twitching, in early 1939, one Louisianan schoolgirl developed a strange twitch in her leg. Suddenly the twitching spread to others. The number of cases rose sharply but no doctor could pinpoint the problem.

All tests came back negative. Meanwhile more and more girls were succumbing to this strange leg-twitching phenomena.

Parents removed their children from schools, refusing to allow them back until the cause was known. After a few weeks, the incidences of leg-twitching seemed to calm down, but what had caused the outbreak in the first place?

Those who investigated narrowed it down to one girl – Helen – who had the first symptoms. Helen couldn’t dance. In fact, she hated dance classes but was worried that her boyfriend would be tempted by another girl who was a better dancer than her.

She pretended to have an uncontrollable twitch in her leg so that she could get out of dance class and have a readymade excuse to her boyfriend.

The Bin Laden Itch

After the tragic 9/11 attacks of 2001, reports started to surface of children complaining of a strange skin rash. The rash could last from just a few hours to a couple of weeks. But doctors and parents were none the wiser.

Some parents started to speculate that this could be a result of a bioterrorist attack. Remember, at the time we were all terrified about viewing the broadcast of the two aeroplanes.

People started calling it the Bin Laden Itch after an extraordinary number of elementary students appeared to come down with this rash. As more and more children fell victim to the rash, so did the panic and hysteria begin to rise. So what was the cause?

The Center for Disease Control investigated. They found that because of the initial fear of a biological attack, children and parents had been paying closer attention to their skin. More cases were reported and numbers rose. In fact, it was these rising numbers that started the mass hysteria.

The problem with mass hysteria

So what about today and the virus that everyone is talking about? Has mass hysteria led to panic buying in supermarkets? Does the constant updating of cases and deaths help to fuel our anxiety? Are the orders from governments beginning to scare us?

It’s really not surprising that people are becoming hysterical. We feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of events when we are bombarded with information from many different sources.

However, despite the fact that we are all living in very crazy times, there is a real problem when it comes to mass hysteria.

  • Mass hysteria can lead us to believe things that are simply not true.
  • It can also fool us into thinking the problem is much worse than it really is.
  • It can change our behaviour and make us act foolishly or selfishly.
  • It leads to the spread of misinformation which only fuels our anxiety even further.

How to cope with mass hysteria

It is true that this pandemic is more deadly than the recent outbreak of swine flu in 2009, but that doesn’t mean we need to panic.

Take, for example, the SARS epidemic in 2003 which killed around 10% of those who caught it. Not to mention the MERS outbreak, which killed 34% of those infected.

So far, this virus is not as deadly as SARS and MERS. Today there are around 600,000 confirmed cases and a mortality rate of 4.4%.

And what does this tell us? Well, with SARS and MERS we weren’t seeing massive shutdowns and forced changes to our behaviour. But the facts and figures speak for themselves. Coronavirus is no more deadly than the last few recent epidemics the world has had to face.

Final thoughts

In these strange and unprecedented times, it can be easy to sit at home and worry. If you feel anxious and hysterical, remember, it’s easy to pass this onto others.

Instead, why not go to reputable sites like the World Health Organisation and get the facts from the horse’s mouth. You’ll feel much better, I promise.

Meanwhile, stay safe.


  1. www.verywellmind.com
  2. www.businessinsider.com

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Daphne Buckingham

    The author makes some very good points about how mass hysteria can bloom during times such as this. However, I would express caution in dispensing advice that could be easily misinterpreted or misconstrued. Right now, people everywhere NEED to take EXTREME measures to prevent the spread of this virus. Also, people need to cease blaming the “media” for the hysteria. Are there disreputable media services that promote disinformation? YES. But it’s each person’s responsibility to use critical thinking– that means avoiding sensational and irresponsible information. People should be very intentional and selective about their “media diet” and should strive to find reputable news services that have consistently proven their dedication to providing responsible, accurate reporting. Right now, more than ever, we should support independent journalism, coupled with our own common sense if we are going to survive. Integrity matters.

  2. brian

    its interesting that you mentioned hysteria with whats been going im not surprised my thoughts are to keep positive although i never used to be like this im sort of sensitive to negative thinking more so the one morning a few weeks ago i suddenly picked up on this from two of my work colleges who also work for the same company i should imagine mass hysteria is the worst kind of condition to get into as this can also drag other people into this kind of thinking

  3. Dolly's Dad

    Just before I retired I was a municipal bus driver in a small city in upstate New York. During el nino years we would have snow storms every week and every week the local supermarket would be left with bare shelves from the mass hysteria fear of being snowed in. If there were two snow storms in one week, the store shelves were empty two times in one week. This is programmed mass marketing!
    Remember the cabbage patch dolls and the 1983 store riots over them? Programmed mass marketing. How about the odd even day gas rationing of the 1970’s. A 4% reduction in oil production cause a nationwide panic. Programmed mass marketing.
    How about the carjackings of the 1990’s that occurred in a few very large gang ridden cities of America, posted all over the news making it sound like it was a national crisis. Again programmed marketing.
    The news media is in the business of sensationalizing events…it sells newspapers and online news subscriptions. In addition it increases advertising revenue from retailers who just happen to have the perfect solution for whatever crisis is being promoted.
    We are being conditioned (I like to call it programmed) by the major news outlets; how many good news stories do you find on the front page of news papers? Not many because there is no ‘value added’ revenue generated from them like there is in car theft stories (the club steering wheel lock and car alarm systems); burglaries (home security systems); muggings (gun sales and martial arts classes); identity theft ( Lifelock and other subscription services); these stories generate revenue for the news outlets from retailers selling the latest fix.
    I commend you on telling people to go to the ‘horse’s mouth’, your local health dept or appropriate agency in getting relevant and accurate information.

    I have a friend who, in the midst of this potential pandemic, comes around in a panic asking if I heard about the complete quarantine our town/county is in. Civil fines and misdemeanor tickets will be issued if we are caught outside. When I ask where he got this information he shows me a Facebook page. Facebook and Twitter are rumor mill generating algorithms, that is their primary function. I tell him this every time and still every few days he show up in a panic. Together we check the town and county health dept website and there is no such order.
    Thankfully there are zero cases of corona virus in our county, mostly because it is an economically depressed county and people just dont travel that much. There is a very large number of retirees here who are respectful of other’s rights and privileges and we know we are in the susceptible group.
    In these times use extra safe hygiene practices, have patience with others, dont hoard necessities and most of all for your own sanity dont buy into this programmed mass marketing agenda…panic sells as the empty store shelves testify.

  4. colly

    I ended up on this page over a year later. The pandemic is over, but the hysteria persists.

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