by Dr. Sara Belouidiane
Study after study has shown that being stressed can severely compromise your immune system and, in a time of global pandemic, it’s important to understand the link between your mental and physical health.
Dr. Sara Belouidiane is a senior clinical psychologist who graduated from from France’s Burgundy university. She has over 17 years working in different mental health services.
Two people can get COVID-19. One can show no symptoms, while the other can experience irreparable damage to their health.
The last line of defense against disease will always be your own immune system. So what is the link between our mental health and our physical immunity?
For more than 30 years, the laboratory of psychologist Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University (United States) has worked to identify psychosocial factors related to vulnerability to viruses affecting the upper respiratory tract.
In an article published recently, Cohen explored how both mental and lifestyle factors may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Certain behavioral, social and psychological factors were evaluated in a test group of healthy people, who were then exposed to various viral strains that cause colds and flu. The test subjects were then monitored in quarantine for five to six days to detect the onset of respiratory disease.
“We have found a strong correlation between social and psychological stressors and increased susceptibility,” Cohen said.
In his article, the researcher suggests, with caution, that these findings could have implications for identifying people who have increased risks when exposed to COVID-19.
Cohen’s work demonstrates that psychological and social stressors are associated with overproduction of cytokines, pro-inflammatory chemicals produced by the immune system in response to cold and flu viruses. This excess inflammation is associated with an increased risk of getting sick.
Likewise, research on COVID-19 has shown that the overproduction of these cytokines is associated with more severe infections. This suggests that a large stress-triggered cytokine response could also contribute to an excessive inflammation and symptoms in patients with COVID-19.
The evidence… from mice
Researchers from the French institute Inserm mimicked a ‘chronic stress situation’ in mice for seven days by treating them with molecules that induced the release of stress hormones. The animals were then exposed to a virus from the herpes family. The mortality rate of the ‘stressed’ mice was about 90%, compared to about 50% in the ‘unstressed’ mice.
The researchers also assessed mice that had been genetically modified to lack certain receptors to viruses. In these animals, stress hormones could no longer bind to the receptors so could no longer act. These mice were much more resistant to viral infection, with a 90% survival rate.
To help people heal and recover from COVID-19, medicines are not enough: one also needs to stay positive throughout the recovery process. That is why the mental health services in Qatar have been helping people affected by the pandemic.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a positive mental attitude
According to my observations as one of those psychologists working in mental health, immunity of the majority of COVID-19 patients decreases due to psychological turbulence.
To overcome depression and anxiety caused by isolation in quarantine, psychologists have been conducting online and phone counselling sessions. These provide education on ‘immunity power’ — how to keep a positive attitude towards the challenges of illness.
Some of our patients have expressed worry over constant nightmares, fear of death, repetitive panic attacks and multiple psychological stress factors such as stigma, social isolation and worries about infecting others.
Offering them the opportunity to discuss, process and accept their emotions significantly helped their physical wellbeing as they faced the virus. You cannot underestimate the importance of a positive mental attitude and emotional resilience in times of crisis.