Why stress promotes coronavirus infections
The coronavirus pandemic and the countermeasures introduced have far-reaching consequences for many people’s lives and their stress levels are correspondingly high. According to a current study, this can in turn have an impact on the susceptibility of those affected to infection and favor the spread of the virus. Conversely, measures to reduce stress are well suited to strengthen the immune defense against the virus.
“The increased psychological stress should not only be viewed as a result of the pandemic development,” emphasizes the German Society for Psychosomatic Medicine and Medical Psychotherapy (DGPM) in a press release on the current study results. Because stress itself can weaken the immune system and act as a possible amplifier on the wave of infections. The corresponding study results were published in the specialist magazine “Psychotherapie Psychosomatik Medical Psychologie”.
The entire situation of the coronavirus pandemic is associated with enormous stress for many people. Uncertainty, health concerns, economic fears of existence and social isolation are just a few examples of the pandemic-related stress factors – and the situation will not improve significantly over the upcoming holidays. However, the stress is not only a consequence of the pandemic, it can also play a role in the spread of the infections.
Effects on the whole body
Stress has a variety of effects on the whole body, explains the study author Professor Dr. med. Eva Peters from the Justus Liebig University in Giessen and the Charité in Berlin. The stress hormone cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal cortex, plays a key role in this. Starting from the brain, a cascade of hormones and other messenger substances signal that a particular challenge is imminent. An alarm call that reaches every corner of the body via the nerve connections on the one hand and the blood vessel system on the other and does not leave the function of the immune cells unaffected.
“Anger at work can be a trigger, as can stress with the partner, a chronic illness or – as is now the case during the pandemic – a persistent feeling of insecurity and fear,” says Professor Peters. And it has long been known that stress or the released cortisol changes the ability of the immune system to defend itself against infection. In the meantime, a whole network of nerve and immune messenger substances has been proven that interact more or less directly with cortisol, are released under stress and increase susceptibility to infection.
Since some stress mediators also disrupt the barrier function of the skin and the mucous membranes, so that pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 can penetrate more easily, an increased susceptibility to infections is to be expected under stress. How great the influence of psychological factors actually is on the susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 remains unclear, “however, initial studies suggest that stressors such as low income or unemployment, lack of partners, inadequate nutrition or cramped living conditions also have a negative effect here Play a role, ”explains Prof. Peters.
Not all stress is created equal
However, according to the DGPM board member Professor Dr. med. Harald Gündel, Medical Director of the Clinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital Ulm Professor, differentiate between different forms of stress. Chronic stress increases the susceptibility to infection, but acute, only brief stress can have exactly the opposite effect. “In recent years it has been shown that targeted, short-term activation of the stress response has a health-promoting effect,” emphasizes Professor Gündel. This can be used in a variety of ways, because “stress” also includes moderate sports such as cycling, gymnastics or walking
According to Professor Gündel, for example, it is advisable “to go out into the fresh air once a day alone, with your partner or with your family.” This can be easily planned on days off. In addition, “also activate laughter, for example when playing a game or watching a funny film, the health-promoting stress axis” and the same applies to singing. In our digital age, this is possible together despite spatial isolation. The heartbeat and breathing are accelerated, the oxygen consumption increases and the immune activity is increased, explains the expert.
Short-term contacts on walks, shopping or on the phone can sometimes help against the feeling of isolation. “For many, it is helpful to arrange a phone call or a digital meeting – that can also alleviate a feeling of loneliness,” says Professor Peters. Good social ties, even if they only take place digitally, are sometimes an effective element of the immune defense, because they buffer negative long-term stress effects.
Reduce stress to protect against infection
The experts come to the conclusion that stress can certainly play a role in susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2, but conversely, by reducing stress, the immune system against the coronavirus can also be strengthened. You can find helpful starting points for stress relief, for example, in the article Stress reduction: Reducing stress made easy. And last but not least, “psychotherapeutic procedures can also help to learn how to deal with stress well,” says the DGPM. (fp)
Author and source information
This text complies with the requirements of specialist medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical professionals.
Dipl. Geogr. Fabian Peters
- Working Group of the Scientific Medical Associations (AWMF): DGPM: How to Strengthen the Immune System Against the Coronavirus (published December 22nd, 2020), idw-online.de
This article is for general guidance only and should not be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. He can not substitute a visit at the doctor.