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Is mass 'covid hysteria' causing psychogenic illness?

I came across a fascinating article today. It is a discussion about 'how mass hysteria can be exacerbated and self-reinforcing when the negative information comes from an authoritative source, when the media are politicized, and social networks make the negative information omnipresent.'


Sounds familiar?


Here are some excerpts from the article which you can read in full here.


"In a mass hysteria, people of a group start to believe that they might be exposed to something dangerous, such as a virus or a poison. They believe a threat to be real because someone says so, or because it fits their experience. Due to the threatening delusion, a large group of people gets collectively very upset. In other words, a threat, whether real or imaginary, causes collective anxiety. The group members may even start to feel sick. Group members might also get symptoms of sickness including weakness, headaches, or a choking feeling, which are propagated to other persons. When a mass hysteria causes physical symptoms, it is called mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria. The symptoms are caused by the stress and anxiety people experience due to the perceived threat. Mass hysteria is infectious and may be a contributing and amplifying factor in real epidemics."


"The Portuguese TV show Strawberries with Sugar is an interesting case. In the show, the characters got infected with a life-threatening virus. After the episode had been broadcast, more than three hundred Portuguese students fell ill. They reported symptoms similar to the ones that the TV show characters had experienced. Among these symptoms were rashes and difficulties to breathe. As a result of these symptoms, several schools in Portugal actually closed. However, an investigation of the Portuguese National Institute for Medical Emergency concluded that the virus did not exist in reality and that the symptoms were caused by the anxiety watching the show, i.e., the symptoms were caused by mass hysteria."


"There is another recent case of mass hysteria connected to a virus. On the Emirates flight 203 in September 2018, some passengers were showing flu-like symptoms. When other passengers observed these symptoms, they started to feel sick as well, and a panic broke out. The panic reached such an extent that the whole flight was quarantined once it had reached New York. The investigation after the incident showed that only a few passengers actually had seasonal flu or a common cold. Indeed, diseases are an ideal ground for mass hysteria to develop."


"It is well known that in addition to placebo effects, so-called “nocebo” effects also exist. Due to the placebo effect, a person recovers from an illness because they expect to recover. When a person suffers from a nocebo effect, on the contrary, they get ill just because they expect to become ill. An intriguing and famous case of a nocebo effect is the case of a man who tried to commit suicide. The man was involved in a clinical study taking an experimental drug. In order to kill himself, he swallowed twenty-nine capsules of the drug, believing he would not survive. However, the capsules that he was taking were placebos, as he was a member of the control group in the clinical study. Believing that he was going to die, he developed serious symptoms and arrived at the hospital with extremely low blood pressure. When, finally, the doctor directing the medical trial arrived, the doctor told the patient that he had swallowed placebos. As a consequence, the man recovered within fifteen minutes."


"Another indicator of overestimation of the threat is the number of deaths. As of 22 January 2021, 2.1 million deaths have been classified as COVID-19-related. However, other diseases are equally or even far more deadly and do not trigger panic or unprecedented government intervention. In other words, the probability to die from COVID-19 is not only very low in absolute terms, but it is also lower than the probability to die from other diseases. It is true that the majority of these other diseases are not as infectious as SARS-CoV-2. This fact has contributed to the panic and led to government interventions that do not occur with other diseases that are even more deadly than COVID-19."


In this article, 'How a Soap Opera felled hundreds of students in Portugal', the author examines the 'Strawberries with Sugar' case mentioned above in more detail.


He comments, “Mass hysteria is the placebo effect in reverse. People can literally make themselves ill from nothing more than an idea" and observes that mass sociogenic illness flourishes when the threat has a basis in reality. And although the article was written in 2017, he makes a very pertinent observation:


“As we enter the 21st century, epidemic hysteria will again mirror the times, likely thriving on the fear and uncertainty from terrorist threats and environmental concerns. What new forms it will take and when these changes will appear are beyond our capacity to predict.”


Scarily accurate prediction of the future.

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