Fear is contagious. Natural selection has wired us to sense fear in our surroundings and make it our own. Zebras might not get ulcers from chronic stress but those that fail to activate their acute stress response when others around them are stressed are more likely to miss cues of threat and be consumed by a predator. Absorbing secondhand stress from others is a survival instinct—an adaptation shaped by prehistoric environments to promote evolutionary fitness.
However, our culture is evolving faster than our ability to biologically evolve. Too often, we helplessly rubberneck trainwreck events—often sensationalized by media for attracting attention and profit—despite their remote connection to our personal survival. For example, fear of the Ebola virus in recent weeks has become more viral than the virus itself. In the modern technology age where fear memes can spread around the globe near-instantly, our tendency to absorb secondhand stress from our ubiquitous, 24/7 media culture to activate our own stress response can produce maladaptive responses that are out of proportion to the actual threat.
Due to the highly contagious nature of the secondhand stress pathway, the Ebola fear pandemic has become a global menace that authorities around the world are struggling to quarantine. The social and economic impact of the Ebola fear pandemic is already significant. A Forbes article suggested that the economic impact of Ebola fear may kill more people than the virus itself. Given the role of stress in a myriad of human ailments, the health toll of the secondhand stress caused by the Ebola fear pandemic should not be underestimated.
Vaccinations to prevent Ebola fear are not available. Prior exposure to SARS fear, avian flu fear, or swine flu fear does not appear to confer sufficient protection against Ebola fear. Those fear pandemics had similarly wreaked havoc on economies and led to school closings, factory shutdowns, travel restrictions, and stock market declines. Many chickens, other birds, and swine lost their lives in the purge to alleviate human fears.
The Ebola virus, whose symptoms can mimic those associated with everyday conditions such as the common cold, thus far has killed approximately 6,000 people in total around the globe since 1976. By contrast, an average of 41,000 people reportedly die every year from influenza in the United States, but sufficient herd immunity against influenza fear has developed due to annual exposure to the meme.
In a world where memes are more viral than viruses, secondhand stress may be the most viral affliction affecting humanity.
Zebras that fail to activate their acute stress response when others around them are stressed are more likely to miss cues of threat and be consumed by a predator.