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Infectious Diseases

Updated 27 July 2020

Could isolation make you more susceptible to Covid-19? Experts looked at psychological factors

In the absence of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation were imposed in many countries – but there is one caveat.

  • Many nations imposed lockdowns and social distancing measures to slow the spread of Covid-19.
  • Research from the Carnegie Mellon University suggests there is a link between stress brought on by isolation and upper respiratory infections.
  • While previous research models focused on colds and flu, these findings may also be relevant for Covid-19.

As researchers tirelessly worked to develop a safe, efficient vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the world was brought to a standstill by several non-pharmaceutical interventions such as physical distancing, orders to stay home, and lockdown measures.

While studies suggest stringent lockdown measures may have prevented many more Covid-19-related deaths, Professor Sheldon Cohen from the Carnegie Mellon University has produced a body of research to show that many stressors we are exposed to during isolation may actually make us more vulnerable to upper respiratory viruses. The viruses can include the novel coronavirus – the very reason why we are in quarantine in the first place. Cohen's body of 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," Cohen stated in a news release.

With the lockdown measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, take the burden off healthcare systems, and reduce mortality, other things such as mental health, social support networks and financial stability became collateral damage in many cases.

Previous research

Cohen investigated in previous studies how various behavioural, social and psychological factors could lead to the development of upper respiratory illnesses. In these works, he looked at several varieties of the rhinovirus, causing the common cold, the H1N1 influenza strain, as well as respiratory syncytial virus and a strain known as coronavirus 229E.

"The focus on the pandemic up until now has been changing behaviours to avoid exposure to the virus," stated Cohen.

"In our work, we intentionally exposed people to cold and influenza viruses and studied whether psychological and social factors predict how effective the immune system is in suppressing infection or preventing or mitigating the severity of illness," he said.

Social, psychological factors make us more susceptible to illness

His work showed that social and psychological factors played a part in the development of infections and illnesses – and this might also be true for Covid-19.

In his series of studies, he found that study participants who experienced interpersonal stress were more likely to develop upper respiratory illness when they were exposed to cold viruses. This could be because stress factors increase the production of cytokines – molecules released by the body as an immune response – which trigger inflammation.

His studies found that this excess of inflammation caused by the cytokines made people more susceptible to becoming ill. Previous research on Covid-19 has shown that the same cytokines could be responsible for more severe Covid-19.

This suggests that stress-triggered cytokines may be linked to excessive inflammation and more severe symptoms of Covid-19.

Protect your overall health in lockdown

Even though lockdown rules in South Africa were relaxed to prevent the economy from buckling under the immense pressure, we are still urged to stay home, as we are facing a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases and deaths. This was expected to happen during our winter months.

And while staying at home can reduce the spread of Covid-19, there is evidence that it may take a toll on our mental well-being. We are also more likely to neglect healthy habits as our daily routine is disrupted.

Prof Cohen, however, states we tend to take better care of ourselves when we have a larger social network.

"Also, 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," he says in the news release.

He suggests taking better care of yourself during isolation – not only for your mental health, but for a stronger immune system and physical well-being – by quitting smoking, only drinking a moderate amount of alcohol and ensuring proper sleep.

Irene Charnley, president of the International Women's Forum of South Africa, recently wrote about the mental health repercussions of the ongoing pandemic. She suggests the following strategies to improve your well-being during isolation:

  • Keep in touch with friends and family despite not being able to see them in person.
  • Talk to someone close to you when your feelings and frustration become overwhelming.
  • Check-in with friends who might be suffering from mental health or financial losses regularly to offer support.
  • Eat healthily for a robust immune system, and recognise whether you are eating out of hunger or as a coping mechanism.
  • Combat your stress by using an app for meditation, deep relaxation and mindfulness.
  • Create a routine by incorporating "non-digital" activities such as house chores, cooking and reading.
  • Limit the amount of time you spend reading news updates, and only consult reputable sources to avoid speculation and fear-mongering.

If you're feeling anxious or depressed and feel like you need help, you can reach the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on their 24-hour helpline 0800 456 789.

For a suicide emergency, dial 0800 567 567.

READ: Mental health effects of Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown – and concern over suicide risk

READ: Avoiding fear, anxiety while you self-quarantine 

READ: Lost your motivation to eat healthy and exercise during the pandemic? You are not alone

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