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The Psychology of Panic: What Causes It?

The Psychology of Panic: What Causes 
It? By Steven Eastmond

During this period of COVID-19, it can be helpful to understand the psychology behind panic.

In today’s world, there seem to be plenty of things to get anxious about. Anything from isolation because of COVID-19, empty grocery store shelves, or earthquakes and aftershocks have recently added to a host of already anxiety-provoking, everyday concerns that people have. But some of the anxiety people are feeling is entirely unnecessary and rapidly evolves into a firestorm of panic that completely overruns the sanity receptors of our brains.

A Personal Example

One neighborhood near where I live was sucked up in just such an unnecessary panic with the recent earthquake. Neighbors up and down the block were out in front of their homes, car engines running, throwing supplies, pets, and small children into their vehicles and then screeching down the street in a mad dash for safety. Where were they going? And where did this panic come from? Apparently, someone on Facebook had decided to pass on a rumor that officials had put out a warning that we had ten minutes to flee before a massive 9.0 earthquake was going to strike. This, of course, was not actually true.

So question: when the facts actually state that, first, we don’t have the technology to predict an earthquake; second, no official has in reality said we are going to have a 9.0 earthquake; and third, you can’t flee an earthquake in ten minutes, why do people end up in abject panic anyway? It seems that all reason disappears and irrational behavior reigns, even amongst otherwise logical and level-headed people.

The answer has to do with the psychology of panic. Let’s have a look at some of the reasons why people panic.

Following the Crowd

First, when we observe just one other person behaving in an unusual way, different from the crowd, we don’t tend to give their behavior a whole lot of credibility. But if many, or all, of the people around us, are behaving in that same way, we have the tendency to follow that behavior, giving full credibility to it, irrational as it may appear. The behavior is much like that of a stampede of wildebeests.

Long exposure photo of a crowd moving across a street

So what’s the psychology behind this source of panic? The assumption is that if everyone is doing it, there must be a rational reason for the behavior, so we mimic it. This is one of the reasons everyone ran for toilet paper at the grocery store recently when in reality there is no shortage and, given the nature of the coronavirus, there is not even a need for people to have excessive stores of toilet paper on hand in the basement. In short, people bought extra toilet paper simply because people were buying extra toilet paper.


A second reason why people panic, at least when it comes to panic-buying anyway, has to do with scarcity. In economics, scarcity is the product of unlimited wants coupled with limited resources. But the psychology of panic when it comes to scarcity is that even if there is only a perception of limited resources in the face of unlimited want for that resource, the result will be some level of anxiety and reactive behavior to obtain that resource before other people do.

Again, in the wake of the coronavirus issue, people panicked about buying toilet paper over the assumption that there would be a shortage, which would, of course, result in the terrifying possibility that nobody in America would be able to “spare a square,” to quote Elaine from an old episode of Seinfeld. So, people rushed the stores for toilet paper and ended up creating a shortage of it. If people believe there will be a shortage of something, there will definitely end up being a shortage.

Perceived Threat

A third and more rudimentary reason panic occurs is when the brain perceives a threat, real or imagined. A four-year-old may panic when she sees a lion at the zoo pacing angrily in his cage, when in reality the child is completely safe because the lion is caged. A teenager may panic when she doesn’t receive a text response from a boy she has been dating, perceiving that he may be breaking up with her or texting other girls. In reality he set his phone down while he was playing a video game. Or a man may panic that he is going to be laid off at work because several other people were laid off at work, even though he has recently been assured he would be keeping his job.

A woman hunches over clutching her hands

The psychology behind this third kind of panic is due to a number of reasons. The brain is hard-wired for self-preservation and is constantly on the alert for potential threats. A loud, unexpected sound, for example, is quickly followed by the brain’s efforts to identify the source as quickly as possible in order to determine if action needs to be taken to fight or flee. The same response happens when we hear about something that may not be immediately threatening us but could at some point become a threat. Like the coronavirus. Where caution is advised in this situation, panic, of course, is not necessary or helpful. Panic leads people to rush to the store and punch someone in the toilet paper aisle because that person got to the last package of Charmin just before they did.

Pause Before You Panic

Beyond the above three causes of panic, there are a myriad of reasons why people become overly anxious. Regardless of the reasons for panicking, try hard to think before you allow anxiety to overtake you. Remember that panic causes more harm than good and generally results from an absence of thought, so taking a few seconds to reason with yourself about what is going on could save you a world of anxiety, if not very embarrassing behavior. With all that is going on in the world, we could all benefit from staying calm and not giving in to panic.

Steven Eastmond, LCSW 

Family Transitions Counseling (familytcc.com)

Steve is a Utah native and earned a master’s in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, the top school of social work in the country. He owns and runs Family Transitions Counseling in Pleasant Grove, Utah and has other therapists working in this clinic as well. Steve is also an adjunct professor of social work at Utah Valley University.

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