Written by: Dr. Carlos Jorge and Nathalie Simmons Jorge
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Most of us are experiencing increased levels of stress right now because the COVID-19 pandemic has created vast amounts of uncertainty in all our lives.

Am I going to get coronavirus?
Are my kids going to be ok?
My parents?
My friends?
When is all of this going to end?
Will life ever go back to normal?
Am I going to lose my job?
What about all of my retirement savings?
I can’t find any toilet paper!

On top of all this uncertainty, “social distancing” is disrupting our basic human need for connection with others.

So…

If you’re feeling anxious, nervous, emotionally down, or overwhelmed right now, you’re not alone.

But our bodies are not designed to be under stress 24-7.

In fact, chronic stress makes us more susceptible to infectious disease, such as COVID-19.

In medical literature, the notion of stress first appeared in Dr. Hans Selye’s 1936 Nature article, “A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents.” In it, Dr. Selye described the hormonal processes associated with the demands stress placed on the body and how these led to certain diseases.

Today, stress is defined as “any physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.” Stress can be externally triggered by physical injury or a disruption in the environment, such as noise, pollution, or war. Stress can also be internally triggered by illness.

How do our bodies manage the stress response?

The system that controls our stress response is a complex interplay between our central nervous system and our peripheral system.

1) The central nervous system includes the hypothalamus, pituitary, and the sympathetic nervous system. It alerts the peripheral system that the body is under stress.

2) The peripheral system includes the adrenal glands and the sympathetic nerve pathways. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine.

This combined system is often referred to as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis or HPA axis.

What’s the difference between short-term stress and chronic stress?

Quite simply, how long the stress lasts.

Short-term stress can be beneficial. For instance, the “fight or flight” stress response can help you escape a dangerous situation or kick your body’s immune system into gear to recover from an illness. After this short-term stress response has served its protective purpose, your body ideally calms back down.

Long-term, or chronic stress, is problematic because the body remains in a hyper-alert state and does not have sufficient time to rest and repair. Think of it as the HPA axis locked on overdrive.

How does chronic stress hurt our bodies?

Chronic stress can suppress both the innate and adaptive immune systems (see our last blog Why All the Worry about COVID-19 and Chronic Diseases?).

Continued stress, therefore, makes us more susceptible to infectious diseases, especially COVID-19.

Chronic stress, when compounded with the immune response to fight infections, induces an abnormal inflammatory response of cytokines and other substances that impede healing.

Our body interprets this abnormal inflammatory response as additional stress, which again activates the HPA axis, creating a vicious cycle of stress, infection, immune system dysregulation, and worsening infection.

In addition to increased susceptibility to infectious disease like COVID-19, chronic stress has also been linked to cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma exacerbation, stomach ulcers, diabetes, sleep disturbances, and mental illness.

What can you do to lower chronic stress and the vicious inflammatory response cycle?

Start doing these 3 things to manage stress today.

Stress Management

Photo by Ingrid Santana from Pexels

  1. Put yourself on a digital diet. Seriously. And minimize the number of audio, sensory, and visual electronic alerts you receive. Just like you shouldn’t eat potato chips all day, you shouldn’t read the news or check what the stock market’s doing around the clock. You may be saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, but…” If this is your response, get curious about your addiction to digital information. Does all the information you’re consuming empower you take positive action, or does it just make you feel helpless, frustrated, scared, and angry?
  2. Go outside, social distancing and weather permitting. Nature is healing. If you can move your body, even better. Soak in the sunshine and beauty that surrounds you. Spending time in nature is linked to lowered blood pressure.
  3. Focus on your breath. You can do something as simple as 4-7-8 breathing for a few minutes every day. Sit down, gently close your eyes, count to 4 as you inhale, hold your breath as you count to 7, then exhale as you count to 8.

Need help managing your stress?

We’re here for you. Schedule your free 15-minute consult with Dr. Carlos Jorge today! Email carlos@companionhealthnc.com to come up a with a personal plan made just for you.

Charlotte-based husband-and-wife team, Carlos and Nathalie Jorge, created Companion Health to reconnect with true medicine, deliver world-class care, and help clients achieve the wellness they deserve. Their two teenage children inspire them to make the world a better place. Click here to subscribe to Companion Health emails.

References:

  1. American Institute of Stress. www.stress.org/about/hans-selye-birth. Author Paul Rosch, M.D.
  2. Medicine.net
  3. Stress, Endocrine Physiology, and Pathophysiology. 2016 Mar. Tsigos, C, M.D. et.al.
  4. Life event, Stress, and Illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008 Oct; 15 (4): 9-18.