My dear friend D. returned [Sunday, Aug. 12] from her summer vacation in some enchanted Greek island. Upon arrival, she checked her mobile phone and was stunned to see an SMS reading as follows: "The Home Front Command, mobile phone alert system test." [A new emergency procedure is tested by the Home Front Command: the citizens will be informed of a rocket attack by an SMS on their cell phones.] In the taxi back home, they reported in the news on the radio that the prime minister was granted authority to expand his powers [under the amended cabinet protocol approved by the cabinet Sunday, Aug. 12.] And on the new tablet she bought, the following headline appeared: "When the skies fall – the missile that will set the Gulf on fire."
That's the way to stir up mass hysteria. In medical parlance, mass hysteria is defined as panic seizing a group of people with common characteristics, who simultaneously manifest symptoms of extreme anxiety. The anxiety symptoms are individual and may include physical symptoms like [accelerated] heart beats, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest; mental symptoms such as extreme fright, depression and loss of self-control; and behavioral symptoms like avoidance [known as avoidance coping, or escape coping].
Mass hysteria may originate in a certain event that has "a core of truth" to it (for instance, the prime minister makes an announcement alerting the population to an imminent missile attack on Israel) or in an imagined event (the possible landing of unidentified flying objects in Tel Aviv). In the first case, a very large group of people may be affected with extreme anxiety and then pass it on, spreading the anxiety to other parts of the population; in the second case, only a few people are usually seized with panic – it may be on some occasions only a single person – and the others are affected by his anxieties.
The most famous case of mass hysteria occurred in 1938, in the course of a radio drama broadcast of The War of the Worlds by movie director Orson Welles that simulated [in a news bulletin format] the invasion of Earth by Martians. More than a million Americans were seized by total panic ...
At least 15 percent of the population suffers from anxieties; however, the combination of an existential threat and the right political mood is liable to kindle mass anxieties. Distinction should be made between the treatment of the anxiety of an individual person and the treatment of mass anxiety. Of course, not every anxiety requires treatment and light anxiety may even be a healthy phenomenon: It spurs us on to study for an exam or to prepare the air raid shelter for a time of emergency. For the treatment of individuals suffering from anxiety, drug therapy combined with behavioral-cognitive treatment may yield the best results. The treatment of children suffering from anxiety, primarily in the context of mass panic set off by fear of war, is designed to calm first and foremost their parents. In anxiety situations, a calm parent is a reassuring, calming parent, and it works in the opposite direction, too.
As to the treatment of the masses, in the case of mass panic the best treatment is the preventive treatment – that is, it is best not to stir up panic – as, once the horse has escaped from the stable, it's hard to get him back there. And since, apparently one cannot give the leaders [of Israel] Prozac or add Prozac to our drinking water, all that we, doctors, can do is to ask of our prime minister and his colleagues: Please, gentlemen, calm down.