In the past few weeks the world has gone a bit crazy as a new virus, previously unknown, has spread across the planet and caused many to worry. The news has been filled with stories of how easy it is for the virus to spread and with news of the numbers of people catching it (and some not recovering), it’s prompted many of us to feel a great panic, worry and for some a lot of fear. People have been panic buying goods, staying at home and keeping their distance from others. And now the governments around the world are telling people to stay at home too, with the UK, among others, now facing a lockdown (a sort of police state/almost martial law 😦 ) to help halt the spread of this disease. But at times like this, should we really be as scared as the news stories suggest? And can our fear and worries actually be harmful to our mental and physical health? Could being fearful be making our chances of catching the virus worse?
Having no fear
I’ve spent a good portion of my adult years living in fear. Having developed OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) around staying clean many years ago I’ve spent years gripped in acute anxiety, panicking when things weren’t clean and imagining all sorts of horrors when I heard someone cough or sneeze nearby. Years of living in crippling panic should make the current situation an almost unbearable one for me to live through, but having fought through the worst of my OCD, and recovered, I now see things very differently.
While the majority of the world has been panicking, worried, with good reason, about this virus threat, I’ve been doing the opposite, and concentrating on staying calm and happy. My behaviour might seem odd to some, especially given how grave the news reports, and the government, make this whole virus thing sound, but I’ve actively chosen not to panic at this time and I feel strangely calm, and positive about the future. Staying calm hasn’t been easy, especially when I tune in to twitter everyday and read all the panic that people are sharing, but I’ve made it a mission to stay calm and positive, because living in fear has a detrimental effect on our physical health and our mental wellbeing. And it also has a massive impact on our immune systems…a bigger impact than you probably know.
Fear, stress and immunity
Most of us probably know that being in fear of something long term like this latest virus causes us to feel a lot of stress. Even more so if you are now mostly trapped in a house with people who add to that stress too. Stress is a well known issue when it comes to health, and most of us know that it isn’t good to live with long term stress. When we feel a lot of stress it can impact on our physical health, we may not eat as healthily as we should or we might change or disregard our exercise routine (if you even had one). Stress also plays on mental health, causing us to feel deep anxiety which can lead to problems with panic attacks, depression and other physical symptoms like sleeping. But these obvious problems aren’t the only ones that occur when we are under stress. The immune system has problems too, and feeling a lot of fear or stress can actually make your immune system worse, which isn’t good at a time when we need it to be working at its best.
The immune system is an important one under normal circumstances, but during a virus outbreak you want it to work at its best. An immune system that’s functioning well will be able to cope with any virus you may catch and will help you to recover easier and faster, from whatever it is you caught.
Why the immune system is so important
Whenever you catch a virus, be it the common cold, a flu or even the latest threat out there (I won’t name it because I don’t want you to fear it), the body immediately begins to respond to the invading virus. While the virus attempts to settle into certain cells in your body (in a cold this can often begin in the throat), your immune system recognises the threat and immediately goes to work to halt the spread of that virus.
The immune system is a wonderful thing and very clever. It does several things to combat a viral threat. It can raise your body’s temperature, because viruses don’t usually like high temperatures and will slow down their movement in the heat. The immune system also starts producing a lot of mucus in your nose, and sometimes your lungs in order to catch and later expell any viruses it finds. It also does its best to destroy any viruses it finds, by destroying some of your own body cells! It sounds weird but it’s true. If you ever feel a sore throat from catching a virus it’s because some virus particles tried to enter your throat cells (they do this to try to reproduce, using your cells like mini factories to reproduce many copies of themselves). Your body can’t get rid of the virus particles once they’ve entered these cells to reproduce, so your immune system starts to destroy those cells that are infected instead, causing the virus in the cell (and any copies it alredy made) to be destroyed too, and leaving you with a bit of a sore throat. All the symptoms you feel when you catch a virus aren’t caused by the virus itself but rather your body’s own attempt at fighting it.
In the meantime, while your body is fighting the invading virus, your immune system is also doing something else, even more amazing…it’s creating antibodies to fight off the virus once and for all. Antibodies are special white blood cells because they catch all the virus particles in your body and quickly eliminate them. If you have an immunity to a virus (have had it before) then these antibodies will rid the virus particles before they make you ill. But when you catch a new virus, one you haven’t encountered before (and so don’t have immunity to yet) your body doesn’t have those antibodies for it yet, and you end up feeling unwell for a while. But like a bunch of scientists living inside your immune system, the scientists eventually create some new and correct antibodies (ones that are uniquely shaped or coded to catch the virus that’s infected you) and then send them out throughout your body. These antibodies are so clever, they are a bit like velcro or a magnet, as they quickly attach themselves to any virus particles in your body and then eliminate them out of your body through your mucus. This is when you start to feel better, like you’re coming to the end of a virus (and probably why your mucus is all thick and nasty towards the end of a typical cold – because it’s filled with lots of white blood cells).
Immune system in stress
When we’re feeling a lot of fear, we are feeling a lot of stress, and stress is very bad for the immune system and can cause it to be supressed a lot. When we feel fear, we are triggering what is called the ‘fight of flight’ response in our bodies, a response that exists since primitive times (and which animals have too) which causes our bodies to get ready to respond to an imminent threat.
Imagine the old primitive days of hunter gatherer times. Stress and fear weren’t usually felt in the body unless someone suddenly came across a dangerous creature like a wolf. Suddenly, when seeing the wolf, the body goes into stress mode, or fight or flight mode, readying itself for an intense escape or great fight with the creature in front of you. The fight of flight response is actually a clever one. Most of the time our bodies energy or resources are being split between different systems, like digesting your lunch, filtering your blood (and so making urine), your muscle movements, etc. and if you catch something, your immune system might be using up a lot of your body’s energy or resources to fight off the infection too. But when faced with a threat like a wolf that’s about to chase and eat you, your body can’t split all its resources or else you won’t be able to escape.
If your body continued as normal, you might only have 60%* energy/resources to outrun the wolf, maybe even less if your immune system is working overtime to fight off an infection. But to outrun the wolf and get to somewhere safe, you need all the strength and movement your body can get, so you need 100% resources. The only systems you want your energy and resources to be going to at that moment is to your muscles so you can move, so the body does something very clever in its fight or flight response, it shuts down every system that isn’t needed. You stop digesting your food, or creating urine (filtered waste from kidneys) – and your body might also make you dump what you have so it doesn’t have to use precious energy to hold it in, which explains why some people will wet themselves or poop themselves in extreme fear!
Your body also shuts down the immune system during fight or flight, because you need that extra energy to run away from the wolf. So for the few minutes that it takes to run away, the immune system is supressed, and in a normal hunter-gather style life, once you get away from the wolf, your stress is over, fight or flight response will end and your body will get back to sending it’s own evergy and resources where it’s needed, including your immune system. But when we live with long-term fear and stress, like many of us are doing now, it’s actually harming our immune system as the fight or flight response is never properly shut off.
Long-term stress and healing
Living in fear or stress for any length of time is very bad for you, and even more so at a time when you want to avoid getting sick. Being fearful of something, stressed and anxious will only cause your immune system to be more supressed and make it harder for your body to fight any virus you might catch. Although our body’s learn and adapt to living with long-term stress, trying it’s best to keep our systems all functioning, including the immune system, the fact is that there are so many health problems that come from a supressed immune system, and we can cause even more damage by some of the behavious that long-term stress can induce. Not eating right or not exercising, problems with sleep, etc. can make it even harder for our bodies to cope if we catch a virus.
So it’s important that we do our best to get ourselves out of the fight or flight response, to stay out of anxiety, stress and fear, to create a positive, calming atmosphere to give our immune systems the best chance at fighting off anything we may catch.
Don’t be afraid, make yourself happy ❤
I know it’s hard to do in times like this when everyone is feeling so scared, seeing so many changes to our lives and living in what feels like a weird police state, but the most important thing you can do for yourself is to stay calm and be positive. Despite what the news stories say about how infectious this latest virus is, the fact is that most of us will probably never encounter it. If we do catch something it’s probably more likely to be a regular cold or flu. Of course taking precautions like washing your hands often, especially when you come home is something which everyone can do to help your own immunity (it’s something the OCD me has done for years – well I actually have a bath everytime I go somewhere that feels ‘germy’). But the best thing you can do for yourself, and for your body and your immune system, is to not fear what is happening.
Fearing the virus will only cause you to feel miserable and can be dangerous for your health if you stress too much as you will go into the fight or flight response and you will supress your own immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off any virus it may catch. Even if the worst happened and you did contract the virus (it’s unlikely but don’t be scared if you did), a positive mindset will make your immune system be able to respond better. And it’s much more likely that you’ll only get a mild version of the illness rather than something more severe. But the chances of getting it are not as high as the scary news stories make out, and taking some precautions, and making yourself calm and happy (and not stressed or scared), is the best thing you can do for your health. ❤
*a completely made up % as I have do not have exact figures.
-I wrote this blog post in response to the current global health crisis, using my knowledge of pathlogy (science of diseases) which I have studied in the past. I’ve experienced a lot of panic in my life and know that these days I am a much healthier person with a more robust immune system because I no longer fear or panic or worry or stress when some scary things like this appear in the news and our world. I haven’t caught a bad virus for well over a decade despite being classed into the ‘vulnerable’ group of people and although there can be various reasons, one big factor is that when it comes to catching something, if I’m around ‘germy’ people (sneezes and coughs) I always eat healthily, wash my hands regularly (or bathe 😉 ) and think positively – watching a lot of Friends box sets helps with that too 😀 ! I wrote this article because I want to help others to realise that you don’t have to be so afraid. Put down the scary newspaper headlines, turn off the fear-inducing news stories and ‘zone out’ if you have to. But please do your best to not fear this virus, your immune system will be much better for it, as will your mental health too. Take care ❤
How are you coping during these times? Do you feel panic or fear or are you stayinngcalm and positive? Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂