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Anxiety be gone!

Containing your Social Contagion

Last week, I talked about my

little cryfest.

But… I didn’t mention that, mid-way, as the tears were rolling,

I had an uncontrollable screeching thought -

what if I run out of Kleenex!

I didn’t panic-stock and only have one box of kleenex.

Then, I stopped dead in my tracks.

and, thought,


Hold on a minute.

I’m not even using Kleenex right now!!

I’m using my freakin sleeve!

Embarrassing to admit but true.

I was totally snot ragging with my ratty sweatshirt sleeve.


Who the hell is in my brain

talking nonsense?

Who is this new, very loud, agitated, nervous person on my

inner committee?

Welcome to dinner table,

social contagion.

SC has been around for a long time but gets really jazzed in times of crisis.

Before I go into what social contagion is, let’s explore

the why?

Why do we feel a surge of panic about our current supply of toilet paper when we see photos of others stockpiling on a year's supply?

To understand the why,

we have to get nerdy

and talk about our brains.

Sometime in the last million years, we developed a new layer on top of our primitive survival brain, called the prefrontal cortex.

It creates future plans and predictions based on past experiences.

Here is the tricky bit.

When there is not enough information present

to accurately predict the future,

when there aren’t enough past scenarios to run through and the outcome is uncertain

it literally can’t compute.

Cue anxiety.

When anxiety is present, the prefrontal cortex

spins out

irrational, unlikely, fear-based stories

about the future.

Stories that don’t really make sense.

Stories that go against your better judgement.

Stories that are completely far-fetched and unlikely.

Stories that even though we know they aren’t true,

we have a very hard time

not thinking about them

over and over.


Hence, the tiny freak out about Kleenex.

I’ve never been in a scenario where essentials are unavailable. I feel stressed and am uncertain of the true outcome.

So, my brain fills in the blank with fear- you’ll never get kleenex again!

and, to make matters worse,

anxiety is


We know this.

And we have a fancy scientific word for this,

social contagion.

Or, as I like to call it - SC.

Simply being around someone who is anxious,

cues and triggers your own anxiety.

“Their fearful words

are like a sneeze landing

directly on our brain,

emotionally infecting

our prefrontal cortex, and

sending it out of control as it worries about everyone from whether

our loved ones will get sick

how our jobs will be affected…” Judson Brewer, M.D.

Just hearing someone freaking out,

freaks you out.

Okay, so what can we do about it.

  1. Pause.

  2. Notice.

Identify who is talking in your head?

Who is speaking right now? I think it’s SC/social contagion because I”m spinning out.

Is this person making sense? No. Not really.

Okay. Then, ask yourself two questions:

  1. “Is this really true?”

  2. “What do I need to do right now?”

Let’s use the Kleenex scenario…

wah wah wah- I’m crying.

Social contagion raises its hand and blurts out


or toilet paper.

or food

or money

You might die!


What just happened?

Stop. Notice.

Ask: Who is talking here? Oh, yeah, it’s that crazy SC thing.

Then, you could say,

“I see you. It’s okay. I know why you are here.

And I’m stopping here for a moment to breathe.”

No need to shame yourself for spinning out or be angry at your brain.

Take a few big breaths.

Then ask a question to re-engage your rational brain.

Is this really true?

How long did the last box of Kleenex last?

three months

What else could I use instead of Kleenex?

Bandanas, socks, sleeves, rags, tshirts,

(lol, not toilet paper unless you want SC to start screaming at you again)

Okay, so lots of things can be used instead of Kleenex.

I could also ask a neighbor if they could spare a box.


So, I have a Plan A AND a Plan B.

Check in with your inner committee: “SC, are you okay now?”

Yes? Ok.

We’re good.

It’s easier than you think

when you add thinking to the mix.

Also, if you can dig deep and become a calm role model for others - this is also contagious but in a good way.

Calm people create other calm people.

When I called my mom

who is in a high-risk category,

she was so nonplussed about the whole thing.

She kvetched about the run on toilet paper, because she was actually out

and how annoying it was that people were stockpiling.

She complained in a way only old people can.

which made me laugh and totally lowered my own anxiety by 10 notches.

here is the NY Times Article

I based this reflection on.



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