Can Psychosocial Distress Make People More Vulnerable To COVID-19?


Quarantining at home for the past few months considerably reduced professional and socializing activities. Added to the sense of isolation from stay-at-home orders, other factors including unemployment, financial troubles, and the threat of COVID-19 infection and death has significantly increased stress levels for many people. One researcher from the United States recently published a piece suggesting that psychosocial distress increases susceptibility to upper respiratory viruses like the novel coronavirus. It is important to note, however, that the researcher, Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a social psychologist and professor at the Robert E. Doherty Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, PA, did not peform the study with the coronavirus, but he did draw parallels with his findings.

In his paper published on July 8 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, Cohen cites his past research endeavors throughout the study to emphasize his point. He reasoned that correlations could be drawn to SARS-CoV-2 infection by analyzing the behavioral and psychological factors that potentially increase risks of acquiring similar respiratory illnesses. 

Behavioral changs, such as social distancing and wearing masks, have been associated with decreasing the risk of COVID-19 infection among the public. But there may be more to contracting or preventing respiratory infections, as mentioned in this press release. In it, Cohen is quoted as saying, ”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.”

“To pursue this question, we used a unique viral-challenge design in which we assessed behavioral, social, and psychological factors in healthy adults,” he continued. “We subsequently exposed these adults to a cold or influenza virus and then monitored them in quarantine for 5 to 6 days for onset of respiratory illness.” 

Psychological Hacks In his paper, researcher Sheldon Cohen highlights how psychological distress could increase vulnerability to respiratory illnesses. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

The Study 

According to the study article, the researchers recruited 394 healthy participants and collected data from questionnaires that measured stress events, perceived stress, and emotions such as anxiety and depression. They also used a stress index to calculate stress levels overall. The volunteers were then exposed through nasal drops to five respiratory viruses: rhinovirus types 2, 9 and 14, respiratory syncytial virus, and coronavirus 229E. They were then quarantined for six days to observe who would contract an infection. The volunteers who scored higher on the stress index were 2.16 times more likely to be infected with a cold in comparison to those on the lower end of the index, the researchers said.  And in another study, 276 participants were interviewed regarding their most traumatic life-events. The researchers found that the longer they experienced interpersonal, educational and financial stress, the higher their chances of getting a cold.  

Cohen and his team also assessed whether disease risk could be predicted by elevated stress levels, smoking, alcohol, poor eating and sleeping habits, in combination and alone. While the study by itself could not explain or conclude why stress increased the risk of catching a cold, it was hypothesized that “producing too much proinflammatory cytokine triggers disease symptoms, such as nasal congestion and runny nose.” 

“We cautiously suggest that our findings could have implications for identifying who becomes ill when exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus responsible for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19),” the authors said.  

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