How to survive a group panic

The world is in a collective panic. The coronavirus Covid-19 is the understandable cause.

Crises precipitate shared alarm when the groups to which we belong, from family to nation, realise that the terms of engagement have suddenly, unexpectedly, dramatically shifted. The group then regresses into primitive states of anxiety at not knowing who’s in control, what’s going to happen, how to find a way out.

To put it another way, the world is struggling to keep its mind. And it’s very hard to keep your own mind in such an environment.

However, it can be done and the insights of psychotherapist Wilfred Bion are helpful in this respect.

He thought a lot about groups, having worked for many years in mental health hospitals and also seen how the world lost its mind in the First World War, during which he was a tank commander. He felt the panic exploding directly over his head.

He realised that much of the time we’re not actually acting as individuals, even when we think we are, but as members of groups. When our groups are functioning well, and doing what they are supposed to do, we tend not to notice. When all is well with them, all is more or less well with us. They provide a sense of purpose, of agency, of belonging.

But when they go wrong, that sense of wellbeing can depart in an instant, and group functionality rapidly falls apart.

In fact, Bion observed that dysfunctional groups shift into patterns of madness far more quickly than individuals are inclined to do. It’s why wars and internecine spats readily kick off.

This is what is happening over Covid-19. It couldn’t be otherwise. The coronavirus has made many people worry about the group called “my country”. So what, psychologically, is happening?

Bion analysed groups when they stop performing. He noticed that three reactions tend to break out.

A first is that the group in crisis throws up leaders who promise that they will lead everyone out of the chaos. They take on the aura of a saviour or hero, and their followers feel strongly that this person and this person alone is the one speaking the truth.

You see this happening as people turn to individual experts, particularly experts who seem to have an independent authority. The implication is that if we listen to them, we will be saved.

Relatedly, some social, religious and political leaders will identify with a messiah complex and present themselves as the one in charge. You can spot them because they speak as if they can issue words of command; as if they can rescue everyone by personal fiat.

The element these leaders won’t broadcast is the uncertainty, the difficulty, the doubt.

A second reaction that groups in panic manifest is producing sub-groups that try to work out what to do. These sub-groups feel themselves to be relatively clear of the insanity, capable of reasoning a way forward, and will speak with words of apparent wisdom.

You see this happening when self-appointed bodies offer evidence and insights challenging the powers that be. With Covid-19, this is occurring in NGOs, civic groups and opposition parties that are struggling with whether to support authorities or challenge them.

Other sub-groups, such as pressure groups, that are already well-organised because of the climate crisis, will feel compelled to respond to Covid-19, too. They see it as their responsibility to seize the opportunity thrown up by the crisis.

They’ll generate proposals, devise solutions, and be tempted to offer guarantees. They do serve a purpose: keeping up the energy required to find the best ways to establish the right responses.

However, it’s best not to believe their short-term suggestions, however well-meant. At this stage, they are a product of the wider group in crisis, too. Remember, no-one really knows what will happen next. The science, at this stage, is motivated inference, at best.

A third phenomenon you see is fight or flight. This is the chaotic response. People panic-buy, unnecessarily self-isolate, share conspiracy theories, generate rhetoric of fear, anger or hate in an effort to feel powerful not powerless.

At the moment, this seems to be the most widespread response to Covid-19.

Bion concluded that there’s nothing the individual can do to alter the melee but there is something they can do to resist it. They can understand the psychology and ride the storm.

Does someone look like a saviour? Don’t trust them. Is some sub-group saying they’ve got the answer? They’re a product of the panic, too. Do you want to flee or fight in self-defence? It’s an understandable response but risks feeding the storm.

Bion advised sitting down, holding onto your chair, and devoting tine to doing no more than observing the turbulent flow. It might help you keep your mind until the collective mind returns.