Up until a few weeks ago, most of us had never paused to consider the existential threat posed by a shopping cart.
We could touch railings, doorknobs, elevator buttons, and our faces without so much as a fleeting thought about falling ill, much less dying.
Things have obviously changed.
At the time of publishing this article, the virus that causes COVID-19 has been diagnosed in more than 1 million people worldwide. More than 51,000 people have lost their lives to the disease.
As expected, the pandemic is now causing incredible mental distress in just about every corner of the planet. A cursory scroll through social media will tell you that.
Where a few weeks ago some had hoped the contagion would somehow fizzle out, many now worry whether that last cough was the harbinger.
Stress and anxiety during these uncertain times are understandable. The world has not seen anything like COVID-19 in nearly a hundred years.
But experts say that too much stress may work against you, making you more vulnerable to the very thing that’s causing worldwide alarm.
“You may be putting yourself at undue risk, because chronic anxiety suppresses the immune system and increases our risk for infection,” says Jennifer Heisz, an associate Professor in Kinesiology and Associate Director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence at McMaster University.
How Stress Affects Your Body
Stress triggers activity in the amygdala. In terms of evolution, this is one of the oldest parts of the brain and its operations are quite primitive.
In prehistoric times, stress was a natural response to a threat – like hearing a predator in the bushes. Today, it still triggers a behavioral response, activating our limbic system to release adrenaline and cortisol.
These two hormones combine to help your brain and body deal with a threat. Symptoms of stress include a rapid heart rate, clammy palms, and shallow breath.
Stress might feel good at first as the adrenaline and cortisol flood your body. Your capacity for cognitive control is impaired or enhanced depending on whether a given task requires suppression of – or attention to – various cues, according to a 2010 study.
“Stress is defined as a reaction to environmental changes or forces that exceed the individual’s resources,” says Dr. Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author from Mill Valley, California.
When a threatening situation requires you to concentrate, stress hormones allow you to focus more intensely on a particular objective.
If you are injured but need to continue moving, adrenaline and cortisol allow you to disregard the pain and move quicker than you usually would.
You may have experienced the benefits of stress as you raced to beat a deadline or – on rare instances – when you were compelled to fight an attacker.
The rush wears off once the threat is resolved.
Chronic Stress and the Immune System
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is when your body stays in the fight-or-flight mode continuously – often because the threat remains unresolved.
This state of constant guardedness over-exposes your body to cortisol and other stress hormones, according to Heisz.
When this happens, the stress reaction damages the cells of the immune system, producing levels of inflammation that increase health issues.
While stress alone cannot make you catch a cold or flu virus, your weakened immune system leaves you more vulnerable to infection.
“Chronic over-worrying about COVID-19 can intensify our vulnerability to viruses by creating an imbalance in immune function,” says Heisz.
The good news is that you can avoid this and regulate stress with a few simple steps. Both Heisz and Greenberg say eating healthy meals and regular exercise can help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
A proper, nutritious diet can counterbalance the impact of stress by strengthening the immune system, stabilizing moods, and reducing blood pressure.
Experts recommend whole, natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, and nuts.
Exercise and Setting Boundaries
Heiz, who recently led a study on how physical activity protects the body against chronic stress, says exercise will also help.
Her team’s research shows that exercisers exposed to high levels of stress demonstrated low inflammation as their mood remained high.
“The key take-away from our research: a brisk walk, jog or bike ride can help keep you calm and healthy during these uncertain times so you can be prepared without the panic,” she writes in an article for The Conversation.
Child psychologist Joseph McGuire of Johns Hopkins Medicine meanwhile recommends using credible sources of information about the pandemic.
He also recommends limiting the time you spend scrolling through social media.
Some of the information you see in platforms like Facebook and Twitter might be correct, but much of it may be misinformed or only partly correct.
This is especially true as information about the virus rapidly changes.
“Setting boundaries can prevent feeling overwhelmed by the situation,” says McGuire in an article for the Johns Hopkins Medicine website. “It is important to not let fear control your life.”
Editor’s Comment: It is estimated that there is at least one undiagnosed case for every case that is confirmed. Many, many victims have had few if any symptoms. While we must take this pandemic very seriously, the fatality rate compared to actual infections are currently more likely to be around 0.25% than the much higher figures you will see in some social media posts.
And while a million cases is very significant, it represents just one in every 7,600 people when scaled against the global population.
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