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?
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.
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.