Being prepared physically but also mentally to keep COVID-19 at bay

In the wake of the Corona Virus pandemic and the global anxiety about the spread of the disease, it may be pertinent to discuss Mass Hysteria, also called Mass Psychogenic Illness, Epidemic Hysteria, or Conversion Disorder, and how we can prepare ourselves to avert it. 

In this age of digital technology and social media when rumours and false information can spread like wild fire to cause fear, panic and mayhem in society, we should be prepared not only physically but also mentally. Mass Hysteria is a psychological condition that manifest as shared symptoms in a  circumscribed group of people following ‘exposure’ to a common precipitant. It can be triggered by an  environmental incident such as contamination of water, environmental pollution, an outbreak of  infectious disease or possession by spirits that causes people to worry over getting sick or possessed, even though they’re otherwise perfectly healthy. In some cases, people who witness individuals around them falling ill unwittingly trick their own bodies into manifesting the same symptoms. In other cases, social or emotional pressures simply become too much for a community to handle, leading to widespread anxiety and manifest in the form of neurological, behavioural or physical symptoms. 

Mass hysteria can also be seen as an extreme example of groupthink, which is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a group of people forms a quick opinion that matches the group consensus, rather than critically evaluating the information. The group members develop a common fear that often spirals into a panic through a process called social contagion when they feed into each other’s emotional reactions. For example, perceived exposure to an illness-causing agent such as corona virus and observation of others developing symptoms may induce mass psychogenic illness. According to a 1997 review of research by The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, mass hysteria is “a constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic illness, but without an identifiable cause, that occurs between two or more people who share beliefs related to those symptoms. It is seen as a social phenomenon involving otherwise healthy people. The illness may entail loss or alteration of function, and unconscious manifest of physical symptoms.“

Mass hysteria is also described as a “conversion disorder,” in which a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of a physical cause of illness, and which may appear in reaction to psychological distress. Common symptoms are headache, dizziness or light-headedness, nausea, abdominal cramps or pain, cough, fatigue, drowsiness or weakness, sore or burning throat, hyperventilation or difficulty breathing, watery or irritated eyes, chest tightness/chest pain, inability to concentrate / trouble thinking, vomiting, tingling, numbness or paralysis, anxiety or nervousness, diarrhea, trouble with vision, rash, loss of consciousness/syncope, itching etc. while in some cases bizarre behaviors such as possession by spirits can occur.

Prevalence is more among younger age, female population and traditional societies like in Bhutan, who believe in supernatural causes of illnesses such as spirits and ghosts, although they also are occur among specific groups and especially among school children in industrialized countries. History is beset with anecdotes of shrieking nuns in the middle ages to laughing and dancing frenzies in the early nineties to possession states in the 21st Century. It is endemic in Bhutan. Not long ago, a remote school in Bhutan was shut for two weeks due to an outbreak of spirit possession among school children. Sporadic cases of swelling and numbness in legs, or itching sensations on the body keep on happening among school children. The symptoms are real as far as the victims are concerned although there may not be a biological or organic basis for the symptoms. Although the symptoms  are usually self-limiting and short-lived, the patients suffer immensely nonetheless. 

Treatment for mass hysteria varies depending on the situation but may include separating the individuals involved and then addressing each person’s underlying stressors and specific symptoms. Intense media coverage seems to exacerbate outbreaks, whereas timely update of factual information and education of public on epidemiology of specific diseases such as for example the present corona virus outbreak are essential to allay their fears and prepare them in advance. Prudent use of mass or social media would play vital role in the spread and perpetuation of symptoms or prevention of mass hysteria. 

Kuensel features Q & A with retired psychiatrist Dr Chencho every first Saturday of the month