Mar 25, 2020
“Stay home.” That’s the advice of health experts as they urge the public to do their part to flatten the curve of coronavirus cases. States like New York and California are putting even tighter restrictions in place. Some people may not find it difficult to self-isolate and work from home. For others, loneliness and stress could be a risk factor in whether they become more susceptible to the virus.
Dr. Chris Fagundes, an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences at Rice University, draws on extensive research to connect the dots between mental health and immune health. His previous research has focused on different cold and upper respiratory viruses, but he says the effects would be the same for Covid-19.
“There’s been quite a bit of research in an experimental fashion where researchers take people and put them in a hotel room and expose them to a cold virus or an upper respiratory virus,” he says. “What the research shows is that people who self report being lonely are more susceptible to getting the virus. Also those who self report psychological stress and disrupted sleep are also susceptible.”
He says there are two main reasons for this. The first is that impairment at a cellular level is created through chronic stress or chronic loneliness. The second reason is that there’s an over-activation of an inflammatory response in people who are chronically stressed.
“If you are chronically stressed and chronically secreting cortisol, your cells become immune to it and you’ll have this chronic inflammation,” Fagundes says. “This puts you at risk of having more upper respiratory complications and that’s really what we’re scared about in this current epidemic.”
The good news is that there are steps you can take to mitigate these risk factors. Dr. Fagundes offers four tips:
- Keep a routine at home. “When people are disrupted from their normal routine, it’s easy for the day to get lost. When people do that over time they can find themselves being out of control and spend more time ruminating and thinking negative thoughts. This can also result in disrupted sleep. Schedule your day and week hour by hour. This gives people control over their lives and keeps circadian rhythms in check.
- Set aside a ‘Worry Time’: “Those that have a tendency to really worry about the unknown can set aside a worry time during the day. Tell yourself, ‘I can worry about this for 20 minutes’ and think about all the scenarios and then tell yourself ‘I’m not going to think about it again until tomorrow.’ This gives people control and allows them to be proactive without letting worry take over their existence.”
- Stay connected with people: While the phone is great, Fagundes says that connecting by Skype or Facetime may be even more beneficial. He says for family members in different states, you can turn on Skype and go about daily activities. “Having that friend or partner there, even virtually, can mitigate the feeling of loneliness.” It can also be helpful to join an online support group.
- Weigh the evidence: “When people are going through the rabbit hole of negative thoughts, think about whether they are rational. We have people step back, evaluate the evidence and challenge their own thoughts. If you’re thinking ‘What happens if all the money in my 401K disappears,’ ask yourself ‘What are the odds it will actually occur? Is this my brain going to an irrational part of my being or is this a rational thing more likely to happen. It will help people experience less negativity.”
Don’t forget to stay connected to elderly relatives or neighbors who could also benefit from hearing a friendly voice on the phone or through the computer.