These are stressful, worrisome times and – sorry, folks – here’s one more thing to worry about: The fact that getting too stressed about it could weaken your immune system just when you need it to be as strong as possible.
We’re not saying to relax and ignore health warnings and tips on keeping yourself protected but maybe don’t keep checking the news every five minutes?
That was one of the messages that social worker James Kendall, a manager with Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s employee work/life connections program, posted March 10 to help the center’s 30,000 workers manage stress.
In addition to reminding people to rely on accurate information from reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), he also advised them to “limit news overexposure,” which only feeds anxiety. This is good advice, even in normal times.
“I tell people to accept that they will experience some normal heightened anxiety and concerns. Uncertainty is difficult to live with,” he said in an email.
Basically, you need to control what you can. “We do not have control over [the virus], but we do have control over how we respond, emotionally,” he said.
Plus, stressing about it is really bad for our health. As scientists have been telling us for a long time, stress can worsen a wide range of health problems and can even increase our risk of getting sick.
Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has been a leading researcher for 30 years on the effects of stress on the body.
One of his earliest studies, in 1991, looked at the impact of stress and a type of coronavirus – not the current one, but a related one that causes common cold symptoms. Even so, Cohen noted in an email, “it suggests the possibility that our results may be relevant to the current virus.”
The study of 394 healthy adults, ages 18 to 54, found the rate of both respiratory infection and colds increased with the amount of stress reported by participants.
His groundbreaking 2012 study looked at how stressful events could increase the risk of a person getting sick from a cold.
The researchers interviewed 276 healthy adults about what had stressed them out in the past year, such as personal relationships, work or money. The participants were then exposed to the cold virus.
The result: Those who reported being stressed were twice as likely to get sick as the others.
Moreover, Cohen and his colleagues found that the risk of getting sick increased the longer the stressful events lasted and if the stress specifically involved either personal relationships or finances.
“You might argue that the pandemic itself may meet some of these criteria,” Cohen said in an email. “For example, it has the potential to do great economic harm, and to isolate people and interfere with normal social interactions.”
The longer it lasts, he added, “the greater the possibility that the stress associated with the pandemic may play a role in our immune response to the virus.”
OK, so what can we do? How do we cope with extra anxiety, especially those of us who already have anxiety and related disorders? Here are some suggestions:
Accept that there will be uncertainty
We don’t know what’s going to happen next, we’re worried we might get sick, all of this uncertainty is hard to take. It makes us feel anxious. As Jelena Kecmanovic, an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University, writes in an article for the website TheConversation.com, being intolerant of uncertainty can make people more vulnerable to anxiety. So ease back on certainty-seeking behaviors, she suggests. Don’t answer every text or email immediately. Reduce the number of times a day you check your phone or the internet for news updates. Do something on the spur of the moment. Realize that uncertainty will always be a part of life.
Don’t blow things out of proportion
An unfamiliar threat can cause us to exaggerate the danger. The unrelenting news stories about the virus only add to our fears and soon we feel overwhelmed. Keep things in perspective. Kecmanovic recommends limiting your exposure to disturbing news to no more than 30 minutes a day.
Do the things you can control
There are things you can do that will reduce your risk – and maybe your anxiety. Wash your hands for 20 seconds or more using soap and water. Use hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Skip the hugs and handshakes and consider the elbow bump – or maybe just a “hello” and a smile. Eat a nutritious diet to keep up your energy and support your immune system. Get some exercise – a walk outside in the fresh air is relaxing and low-risk, or try some easy indoor exercises. Get enough sleep.
Seek professional help
Vanderbilt University social worker James Kendall likes to quote Mister Rogers, the children’s TV show host, on this one: “Seek out the helpers” in times of crisis. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to a therapist who can help you with strategies for managing your anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been found effective in treating chronic anxiety, as have certain medications. —Candy Sagon