Psychological Well-Being & Immune Health: Lessons from COVID

As we forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is increasing attention on the mental health ramifications of this public health crisis. There are legitimate reasons for this concern; depression rates tripled in the past year. Suicidal thinking and substance misuse increased 11% and 13% respectively since 2019. Based on prior findings that anxiety and posttraumatic stress symptoms skyrocketed after the SARS pandemic in 2002, we should expect that there will be emotional ripple effects from this pandemic for quite some time.

These are examples of adjustment reactions to the pandemic, meaning that symptoms appear as a response to the disruptions, stress, and general social upheaval caused by the pandemic. However, a number of studies conducted during the pandemic revealed that individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions were more likely to contract COVID than those without a pre-existing diagnosis (*this finding was independent was other physical health risk factors). While researchers suspect that there are behavioral factors that play into this finding (e.g., smoking rates are higher, less adherence to health recommendations), major consideration has been given to the fact that an individual’s baseline mental health (good, bad, or somewhere in-between) has a significant impact on how the body will respond to contact with pathogens, viruses, etc.

Simply put, poor mental health weakens our immune system. Depression and prolonged/chronic stress lead to an over-production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which interferes with our immune system doing its job properly. As a result, we are not only more susceptible to infectious diseases when depressed, anxious, or stressed, but our bodies have more difficulty fighting the virus once in our system. Virus symptoms progress faster, become more severe, and linger longer. Additionally, when researchers examine how mental health affects vaccine response, they find that vaccines do not have the same rate of effectiveness in individuals who experience abnormally high levels of depression, stress, and anxiety; they take longer to work, have a weaker effect, and their positive effects are more short-lived.

For these reasons, we should take stock of our mental health during this pandemic and resist the urge to simply accept depression, anxiety, and increased stress as a byproduct of COVID-19. These mental health conditions are highly treatable and they can significantly compromise how your immune system responds to the virus and vaccine going forward. Conversely, good mental health aids your immune system in fighting viruses, especially when paired with healthy behavioral choices (e.g., proper nutrition, exercise, stress management). If you are interested in meeting with a clinical health psychologist at our practice, contact our office at 732-988-3341 for a consultation appointment.

Lauren Gashlin, PsyD
Clinical Health Psychologist

Call us at (732) 988-3441