Too much stress makes it more likely you’ll contract COVID-19

NOTTINGHAM, United Kingdom — It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has been an incredibly stressful time. Unfortunately, new research finds people who feel that stress the most are also more likely to catch the coronavirus. Scientists at the University of Nottingham say people feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed at the start of the pandemic in 2020 were more at risk of contracting COVID-19 throughout the rest of that year.

Their study found that greater psychological distress during the early days of the pandemic significantly increased the chances of infection later on. These individuals also had a greater number of symptoms and worse symptoms as well.

Stress and illness have a long-standing connection

Studies prior to 2020 have also shown that stress can weaken the immune system. Fast forward to today, and the past two years have been a tremendous strain on the world’s mental health. Add in months of social isolation, and it’s clear just how psychologically difficult the pandemic has been for countless people.

To get a better idea of just how much excess stress increases COVID-19 vulnerability, study authors put together an observational study encompassing close to 1,100 people. Each subject filled out a wellness survey in April 2020 and reported any COVID-19 infections or symptoms up until December 2020.

The team then analyzed regression models of the data, all while accounting for various demographics and occupational factors. Ultimately, COVID-19 infections and symptoms were notably more frequent among people who experienced elevated psychological distress in April 2020.

“The significance of the work is in that it turns the debate regarding the mental health aspects of the pandemic on its head. Our data show that increased stress, anxiety and depression are not only consequences of living with the pandemic, but may also be factors that increase our risk of getting SARS-CoV-2 too,” says study leader Professor Kavita Vedhara from Nottingham’s School of Medicine in a university release. “Further work is now needed to determine whether and how public health policy should change to accommodate the fact that the most distressed people in our communities appear to be at greatest risk of COVID-19 infection.”

“Previous work has shown a clear relationship between distress and the development of viral infections indicating a vulnerability. Our study found that distress was associated with self-reported COVID-19 infection and the next step is to investigate whether this association is found in those with confirmed infection,” concludes Professor Trudie Chalder, Professor of Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy from King’s College London.

The study is published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

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