John Phipps: The Phrase 'Don't Panic' Isn't Helpful with COVID-19

John Phipps says no phrase has been more overworked than “don’t panic” over the last week, and he thinks it's singularly unhelpful for several reasons. ( Farm Journal )

Perhaps no phrase has been more overworked than “Don’t panic” over the last few days. I find it singularly unhelpful for several reasons.

First: Not to trivialize, but most people are not panicking in the medical sense of the word. Those who suffer from true panic attacks could educate us on how this crippling mental state is absolutely disabling and physically hazardous. The emotions most worriers are experiencing pale in comparison even to anxiety attacks.  What the majority of us are living through should sober us up to better understand those who live with true panic in their lives.

Second: these pseudo-panic feelings are natural, predictable, and part of our self-defense instinct. They should be respected, as psychologists have revealed that what seems like mystic intuition can be our mind working in the background under stress to find patterns that indicate a danger. By the time our rational brain has fleshed out this suspicion into a plausible threat, the most effective time to act may have passed. So my personal advice (for all its worth): respect the early messages from your emotions, panic early, so to speak, and make a rapid token response. I sold some grain last week based little more than an uncomfortable feeling about world events. Right or wrong, it helped my outlook.

Third: this pseudo-panic occurs when our brain at some level realizes incoming evidence presents an event way beyond our plans. The idea that farmers should have had a plan for a pandemic is preposterous, but we should know what prices are economically disastrous. “Don’t panic” is too often translated into “do nothing”. While inaction may be the optimal response, only you can decide if it fits your goals and abilities.  I find taking small actions in what I think is the right direction prevents feeling powerless and keep my rational brain in the game. It also generates valuable data for future decisions.

Finally, cut yourself some slack. If your decision-making during crises is even 50% successful you’re a big winner. There is no trophy for looking totally cool during a time like this, unless it is an Oscar, because we’re all faking it.

Bottom line: don’t waste time pretending you’re not panicking on some level. Recognize what is really happening with your neurochemistry and appreciate how your natural defenses are working for you. Go ahead and panic a little and then use that energy to defend your future.