The fastest-spreading contagion known to humankind swept through Britain this week, causing raised blood pressure, spiralling stress-hormone levels and rash economic actions galore. The contagion is an outbreak of mass panicked anxiety. Bank failures, credit crises and rollercoaster stock prices have piled on top of our worries about food and fuel costs, but heart-gripping, mind-spinning fear - the sort that has sent record numbers seeking psycho-therapy - is something we can catch from each other like a virus. For centuries, such epidemics have caused panic and economic plunges. But studies show that the fear can be forestalled.
Worry is only natural in the circumstances, but our primitive fear-driven flock instincts are to blame for spreading social anxiety and severe unease. Philip Corr, a professor of psychology at the school of human sciences at Swansea University, cautions that doubt and instability are among the worst causes: "Uncertainty is more difficult to deal with than bad news. If you lose your house, your job, it's tragic, but then you have a concrete problem to address," he says. "If you are faced with higher interest rates, large fuel bills, rising food costs and the worry of what is going to happen in the next few months - that can have a catastrophic effect on people."