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Miami experts say stressing over the COVID-19 pandemic stress can impact our mental and physical health.EXPAND
Miami experts say stressing over the COVID-19 pandemic stress can impact our mental and physical health.
Photo by Sydney Rae/Unsplash

Coronavirus Stress Can Weaken Your Immune System, Miami Experts Say

If you're reading this, you don't need us to tell you there's a lot happening on Planet Earth at the moment. The COVID-19 pandemic is sending the global economy into a dizzying freefall, countless people are losing their jobs, confusion is mounting over who can get tested for the disease, and we're all counting on our elected officials and fellow humans to make the right decisions so we can survive. Frustratingly, many of the places we would turn to in difficult times — bars, restaurants, parks, or places of worship — are off-limits right now.

If you're feeling stressed — or even sick — about the madness swirling around us, you're not alone. Experts say those feelings are entirely valid.

"Some amount of stress is natural and to be expected under conditions involving significant uncertainty, understandable fear of illness, and somewhat of a lack of control arising from the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak," says Firdaus S. Dhabhar, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Although committing to self-care might feel like climbing a mountain during an avalanche right now, it's critical to take care of your mental and physical health. Miami-area experts say severe, prolonged exposure to stress can affect the body's functioning, weaken the immune system, and make you feel sick.

"Our minds are not detached from our bodies," says Dr. Rachel Rohaidy, a psychiatrist with Baptist Health South Florida. "Whatever event happens that we don't know how to deal with, those stressors can manifest into physical symptoms." They can include headaches, palpitations, sweaty hands, chest tightness, body aches, insomnia, colds, and infections.

In the early 1980s, researchers from the Ohio State University College of Medicine — fascinated with animal studies linking stress and infection — found that medical students' immunity dropped every year when they were under the stress of exams.

The test-takers had fewer of the natural killer cells that fight viral infections, and they almost stopped producing immunity-boosting proteins. Plus, their infection-fighting T-cells responded weakly in test-tube stimulations, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

"For stress of any significant duration — from a few days to a few months or years, as happens in real life — all aspects of immunity went downhill," the APA website says. "Thus long-term or chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system."

That said, if you're worried that what you're feeling could be psychosomatic, experts say not to discount your symptoms.

"It's very important to not tell patients it could be in their heads," says Dr. Vanessa Padilla, a University of Miami professor and consultation-liaison psychiatrist, which refers to a branch of psychiatry that specializes in psychosomatic medicine. "Be aware that everyone having respiratory symptoms, unexplained cough, and fever needs to be evaluated."

Padilla says people should contact their doctors for instructions if they're feeling such symptoms.

"If there's no evidence that it's physiological in nature, then we may be discussing how the psychological part is impacting your body," she says. "If you don't have respiratory illness but feel things like chest tightness, difficulty breathing, sweaty hands, headache, and stomachaches, those are associated with anxiety."

Coronavirus-related stress can compound the conditions of people who are already immunocompromised. And it can affect the psychological state of anyone regardless of history.

"Any person who already lives with mental illness may be affected by having an exacerbation of symptoms," Padilla says. "And for the general population that hasn't been living with mental illness, this could lead to adjustment disorder."

Padilla says it's important for people with previously diagnosed depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions — or a predisposition to those conditions — to maintain contact with their doctors, take prescribed medication, and find ways to remain grounded. Taking care of our minds is just as important as taking care of our bodies, the experts say.

"It is also important to recognize that the better our mental and physical well-being, the stronger our immune systems are likely to be to help fight the virus," Dhabhar says.

For those feeling lonely or bored while working at home and limiting contact with friends and family, the experts recommend using technology to connect with others. Spending time with pets, cooking, meditating, playing games, and walking around our neighborhoods at safe distances from others are other good stress relievers. Rohaidy recommends establishing routines, especially when it comes to sleep.

"Keeping regular sleeping hours and keeping things calm in the house are really important right now," Rohaidy says.

The experts say limiting exposure to news and information about the novel coronavirus can benefit everyone.

"I think we need to be careful about how patients and the general public access information," Padilla says. "I think people need to pace themselves, take care of themselves, and have reliable sources of information. [They should] trust their concerns and also seek help if they feel they're not in a good place."

The University of Miami, Baptist, and other health systems provide telemedicine for people who want to seek help by phone, tablet, or computer. Depending upon the severity of the problem, remote treatment can be safer than a trip to the doctor's office or emergency room.

Remaining positive that things will get better can also help, Padilla says.

"We might not have all the answers for every single person going through something," she says. "We as humans after disaster tend to become creative. Stay alert. Don't lose hope. Things may become different and bring uncertainty. That doesn't mean the next step will not be possible."

If you or loved ones need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

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