Panic. It's Good For You.

Overturning a stigma.

Panic. It's Good For You.
Shot Prime

It was 1873. In Shreveport, coffins lined the streets. There were real zombies out and about, wandering in delirium as their organs failed after days of vomiting blood. They were already dead. They just didn't know it. Later, their bodies would be scooped off the pavement and taken wherever there was space. Especially in the deep south, everyone was terrified. People ripped up railroad tracks and threatened to burn bridges to stop the spread. Towns imposed "shotgun quarantines," taking up arms to keep away outsiders. The city of Shreveport lost a quarter of its population. The local newspaper stopped reporting on anything else. They simply printed obituaries. Even then, they didn't want to name the disease killing everyone. They were afraid of the economic impact.

Walk through town. All you could see were hearses. All you could hear were the sounds of the sick and dying.

It's ironic, isn't it?

I've lived in the deep south for most of my life. I was there for the beginning of the current pandemic. People in my neighborhood threw lockdown parties and barbecues. If anyone panicked, it was over things like baking flour and toilet paper, not the actual threat in front of them.

Before modern medicine, people didn't simply live with diseases. That's a fantasy cooked up by your average internet troll. Nobody shrugged off yellow fever, plague, smallpox, cholera, whooping cough, or tuberculosis.

They panicked.

Panic led to action. It saved lives. It fueled the science and public health so many take for granted now.

How times change...

Maybe you've heard of the Walter Reed Medical Center, where sick presidents go. It's named after the army doctor who confirmed that yellow fever spreads via mosquitoes. Until then, everyone lived in fear of it during bad outbreaks like the one in 1873. Yellow fever emptied entire cities. So you can understand why panic would take hold in the deep south, where mosquitoes thrive.

Nobody took chances with yellow fever. Nobody stood around saying, "There's no cause for alarm yet."

They panicked, and for good reason.

The turn of the century changed everything when it comes to panic and its perception. Scientific discoveries, combined with revolutions in sanitation and public health, freed humanity from fear of disease. Handwashing and disinfection finally caught on. Look at the archives. You'll find plenty of headlines trumpeting the newfound freedom from fear and death.

The deeper you get into the 20th century, the more you see "panic" becoming a dirty word, something that only the poor and uneducated do. The intelligent middle class didn't panic anymore.

They had money.

They had access to medical care. They washed their hands. They didn't work in dirty factories and slaughterhouses. They weren't the ones who'd be dropping dead from preventable diseases.

That was for the lower classes.

So panic started to take on a kind of stigma.

More and more, the upper and middle classes alleviated themselves of the need to panic. They used the poor and working classes as their early warning detection system. It was only after a certain number of poor people died that they actually needed to take a threat seriously. Until then, they couldn't be bothered.

Panicking wasn't genteel.

The word "panic" finished its transformation into a bad thing in 1976, when the Ford administration oversaw a massive vaccine campaign against an impending swine flu outbreak. Ultimately, swine flu only caused a handful of infections and one official death. It became known as "the pandemic that never was."

Did everyone congratulate Ford for his prescience?

Did everyone say, "Wow, we stopped swine flu!"

Not exactly.

Avoiding a major swine flu pandemic earned public health officials a badge of shame for "overreacting." The public embarrassment was so great that it even fueled the government's notorious inaction and neglect during the emergence of HIV/AIDs during the 1980s. Reagan didn't want to end up like Ford. He decided it was better politically to fan moral panic over drugs and satanism.

A team of researchers at Columbia University talk about the transformation of panic in a 2013 op-ed, "A Brief History of Panic." By the early 2000s, panic had become an insult hurled at anyone who wanted to take a threat seriously before it was too late. It became associated with ignorance, poverty, and mental illness. That's the crippling legacy we live with.

Psychologists have an even better term for what happened in 1976. They call it the paradox of preparedness. If you warn everyone about a threat, and then successfully avoid the threat by taking proactive measures, that doesn't make you a hero. Ironically, you're more likely to get criticized and scorned.

There's a weird lesson here.

If you work in public health, you apparently can't prevent epidemics and disasters. You have to wait for an appropriate number of deaths before taking decisive action.

Otherwise, you look bad.

This explains part of the reason why we keep seeing such slow, fumbling responses to looming disasters. Bureaucrats worry more about their reputations and careers than saving lives. Even as far back as 1918, you see officials like the head of public health in New York talking more about preventing panic and hysteria than preventing deaths. During the worst pandemic we've seen in a hundred years, you could still find plenty of doctors talking about the importance of hope and a positive attitude, but not effective masks.

There's another, even bigger lesson.

Panic wasn't always a bad thing.

Ira Allen goes even deeper into the philosophy and origins of the word panic in his book Panic Now? As he explains, the word panic itself derives from the Greek god Pan, who played a range of roles in ancient western culture. Most of the time, he was a fun-loving playboy. But sometimes he could be more serious. His voice could instill terror in gods and titans. He could send humans scrambling away in senseless fear. So the word panic literally means to run away from the sound of Pan's voice.

You could think of him as the god of the wild, the otherworldly midnight sounds heard by soldiers and traders when they traveled between cities.

Pan didn't live to hurt humans. In fact, he often helped them during times of stress and trauma.

Allen recommends you panic.


Panic isn't the evil thing it's been made out to be by politicians and mainstream media over the last 50 years. It's not women and effeminate men running down the street screaming or pacing around their apartment, tugging their hair and clothes. That's what we've been led to believe, and it's a lie.

We've been taught to conflate panic with anxiety. And almost nobody seems to want to talk about how our current mental health crisis is the direct result of so many people not having the space or the tools to deal with their very legitimate fears and unprocessed trauma.

When you panic for real:

You admit you're scared. You admit you don't know what to do. You stop. You listen. You look for answers. You come up with a plan. You abandon your previous assumptions about reality. You adjust to the new reality in front of you.

You have to panic before you act. Your brain has to go, "Oh, god. Maybe I'm going to die." If you don't panic, then your mind never arrives at the appropriate solution to an urgent problem. You never see the new reality.

You never change.

As I've written elsewhere, the kind of panicking you see in movies almost never happens. It's short-lived.

When politicians and the mass media keep trotting out the phrase "Don't panic" or "There's no cause for alarm," they're evoking the imaginary panic you see in movies.

They don't want you to panic for real, even if your panic results in the appropriate actions that save lives.

Real panic makes them look bad. It costs money (and elections). It eats into profits.

Why should we be panicking now?

As Allen and so many other writers have explained, the world is ending. We're in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, one we caused. Our weather patterns are going haywire. We're facing a cascade of pandemics. We've nearly depleted our natural resources. We're heading into a major population collapse. Almost every scientist in every discipline knows this, even if they're too afraid to say that out loud.

Of course we should panic.

Everyone's afraid. Nobody knows what to do. They're just pretending. They're stifling thousands of years of human instinct, because an increasingly corrupt elite have commandeered our society. They've rewired our fear response.

Panicking doesn't have to mean riots and chaos. It could mean just admitting that we're scared and we don't know what to do. It could be the necessary step toward coming up with a plan that would leave something of a future for everyone.

If nobody ever panics, then nothing will ever change.

That serves the guardians of the status quo.

If a mysterious illness started causing your friends and family to cough up blood or bleed from their eyes, and nobody had any idea how it was spreading, what would you do? Would you probably panic?

I hope so.

Panicking simply means listening to your fear and letting it prompt you into thought, planning, and action. If someone brags about never panicking, it means they're simply doing business as usual, even if it kills them. It means they're deeply scared, but too scared to do anything about it.

The word panic is derived from a Greek god.

It's good for you.

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