Updated: Feb 7
It’s not a stretch to say we’re living in stressful times. Sickness, isolation, unemployment, loss – hardships have pummeled the world ever since the pandemic hit. It sent stress levels to all-time highs, causing the American Psychological Association to label it “a national mental health crisis” that could mean serious health consequences for years to come.
Yes, they said “health consequences.” That’s because chronic stress has very real, very measurable impacts on your overall well-being, including your physical health. In fact, chronic stress can suppress your immune system, putting you at much greater risk of getting sick. That includes catching COVID-19 … and not the mild kind.
Knowing that, let’s explore just how chronic stress can get you sick and what you can do to stop the stress cycle in its tracks.
Cortisol Runs the Show
Chronic stress’ stronghold on your immune system mainly comes down to one hormone: cortisol. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Your body produces it daily to regulate your sleep-wake cycle, blood sugar levels, metabolism, blood pressure and more. When at the right levels, it’s constantly working in the background along with a host of other hormones, ensuring you’re operating at full capacity. But beyond those regular jobs, cortisol has another essential function: It’s part of your flight-or-fight-or-freeze response.
Here’s how it works: When you’re stressed (physically or mentally), your internal alarm system flips into “on” mode. Suddenly, your adrenal glands produce more cortisol to help you face the threat. And this can also shut down functions deemed “non-essential” – all to help you conserve energy. Think your reproductive system, immune system and even growth processes.
In short bursts, this is great. Cortisol can raise your blood sugar, for example, giving you the boost of energy needed to meet, say, a looming deadline. Then it can restore balance afterward. That’s incredible. However, your flight-or-fight-or-freeze response was not built for the unique problems of modern-day life. Stressors today are difficult to fight off without the right tools and nearly impossible to flee from. Just worrying about something can set off a hormonal response.
That’s why many people’s alarm systems are stuck in “on” mode, causing long-term cortisol imbalances. Suddenly, a momentary suppression of your immune system becomes a chronic crackdown.
Of course, we’ve known for a while that chronic stress weakens the immune system. In one study, 235 adults were put in high or low stress groups. And over the course of six months, those with high stress saw significantly more respiratory infections and days of symptoms. In another study, 394 people were exposed to one of five respiratory viruses in 1991. One of them was even a coronavirus. Stress was once again linked to a higher risk of getting sick.
Now a new study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine has come out confirming what many researchers suspected: Those who experienced higher stress, anxiety and depression when the pandemic began were at greater risk of getting COVID-19.
Stress didn’t simply mean a greater chance of catching the virus. It was also linked to a greater amount of symptoms. And more severe symptoms on top of that. As Professor Kavita Vedhara, who spearheaded the study, put it: “The most distressed people in our communities appear to be at greatest risk of Covid-19 infection.”
And there’s more. Another study published in The Lancet found that in a group of 535 people, those with COVID-19 had significantly higher levels of cortisol than those who didn’t. Within 48 hours of admission to the hospital, researchers took measurements and found a doubling of cortisol concentration was linked to a 42% increase in mortality.
So it’s not a stretch to say that chronic stress is an at-risk condition. The CDC already considers those with a weakened immune system at risk. So it’s vital, now more than ever, to find ways to manage the stressors of everyday pandemic life.
How to Take Back Control
Of course, there are a number of factors that can contribute to immune health. A weakened immune response could be the result of other conditions, a poor diet, lack of exercise and more. But the point remains clear: It’s important to derail chronic stress, particularly during a pandemic.
One method is by monitoring your stress levels in real time. To learn more, request access to Pardigm.com's instant cortisol test.
There are also a number of lifestyle changes you can start making today that will balance your cortisol levels immediately. Read about scientifically backed stress-reduction techniques here.
Finally, stay tuned. In a future post, we’ll explore some other tools that will help you take control of your stress. One comes down to mindset. Research shows that a “stress-is-enhancing mindset” can have positive effects. In fact, it can actually benefit your physical and mental health. We’ll tell you all about it.
Before you go, we have one more question for you: How can we get better? Here at Pardigm.com, our goal is to gather the best information to help you understand the science of stress. If you think we missed anything in our research, please let us know here.