Researcher warns about how psychological factors affect our susceptibility to diseases like the cold, flu and Covid-19.
A study by Carnegie Mellon University in the United States suggests that the stress experienced during self-isolation may be associated with an increased vulnerability to viral infections that affect the upper respiratory tract – and, perhaps, to Sars-CoV-2. The research was published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
“We know little about why some of the people exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are more likely to develop the disease than others. However, our research on psychological factors that predict susceptibility to other respiratory viruses may provide clues to help identify factors that matter for COVID-19,” said Sheldon Cohen, a Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in a note.
In a series of experiments, Cohen examined how psychological, social and behavioral factors affect healthy adults exposed to eight strains of viruses that cause the common cold (rhinovirus types 2, 9, 14, 21, 39 and Hanks; respiratory syncytial virus; coronavirus 229E) and two influenza microorganisms (A/Kawasaki/86 H1N1 and A/Texas/36/91).
The professor noted that participants who lived with stressors had a higher risk of developing upper respiratory infections when exposed to the cold virus. For this reason, Cohen believes that stressors can also play a similar role in the infection by the new coronavirus, increasing a person’s vulnerability.
In previous research, the scientist found that social and psychological stressors increased the production of cytokines – molecules that promote inflammation in response to infection. Likewise, studies around Covid-19 have shown that excessive production of pro-inflammatory cytokines is associated with severe symptoms of the infection by the new coronavirus, which, according to Cohen, suggests that the response triggered by stress contributes to the worsening of the disease.
Finally, the researcher recommends that, during self-isolation, people should take better care of themselves by sleeping regularly, practicing physical activity, and avoiding smoking. The use of social networks can also be an ally. “If people perceive that those in their social network will help them during a period of stress or adversity (social support) then it attenuates the effect of the stressor and is less impactful on their health,” concludes Cohen.