June 20, 2020 19h01
Strange symptoms? It is the stress, not the COVID-19 !
Professor of psychology, Queen’s University, Ontario
Since the early days of the pandemic Covid-19, have you wondered why you had more often headache ? Or in your belly ? Itching or pimples ? Why are your rules, are they irregular or more painful than usual ? Recent scientific research suggests that there may be biological responses of the body to stress.
Our biological system of stress response — the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) — has evolved there are hundreds of millions of years to help our ancestors to vertebrates to quickly mobilize energy to deal with events, putting their lives in danger, as attacks from predators. In the short term, this system is really efficient and is essential for survival.
The problem of our current situation is that it lasts for months, and that expects to have no end. Chronic stress puts the HPA-axis in hyperactivity, with effects that reverberate throughout the body. Its symptoms can even add a source of stress. By understanding why our body reacts this way, you will be able to develop strategies to prevent stress to install.
The biological response to stress
When animals perceive a threat in their environment, the HPA axis stimulates their adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps with the adrenaline, to pump the oxygen to the most important muscles to allow the animal to fight or flee.
The reaction “fight or flight” produces physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and a tightness of the chest (the heart pumps the oxygen to the major muscles), as well as butterflies in the stomach, nausea and tingling (the blood leaves the stomach and ends to reach the muscles more important).
The HPA axis also interacts with the immune system to manage the following things. Cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory that binds to a large number of receptors in the skin to help repair wounds and fight infections.
The HPA axis does not see the difference between the deadly threat posed by the attack of a predator and the stress factors modern. Thus, at the beginning of the pandemic, if your stomach shuddered, or that you feel your heart beat faster while reading the information about the increase of cases of Covid-19, your body was doing what it was programmed even if, at that time, you were not in front of imminent physical harm.
The problem of chronic stress
The attack of a predator is limited in time. The pandemic of Covid-19, for its part, lasts for weeks and can cause social isolation, insecurity, professional or financial, as well as an increase in family responsibilities. Unfortunately, everything that makes the HPA axis, it is to secrete stress hormones when one perceives a threat in its environment. Thus, if one thinks one is in front of a constant threat, the HPA-axis, will produce continuously these substances.
One of the most important effects of the prolonged release of cortisol is glucocorticoid resistance. The cells of the immune system become less sensitive to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol. As a result, the cortisol causes an increase in inflammation in the body and the brain.
Your itching and your skin rash ? It is possible that the receptors of cortisol, your skin will be more receptive to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol, and that are produced of chemical substances that inflame the skin.
Your headaches and / or stomach ? Your periods painful ? All of these symptoms can also be a result of inflammation of the organ systems caused by chronic activation of the HPA-axis.
Even psychological symptoms, such as feelings of depression or loneliness, may be related to the release of chemical substances are pro-inflammatory caused by chronic stress.
Control his response to stress
A good part of what is perceived as stressful to the daily is not linked to the risk of contracting the virus from the Covid-19, but rather the changes we’ve had to make to our life. The work at home, or the loss of work, disrupted our schedule of sleeping, eating and activity that regulate our circadian clock to internal. The fact of staying indoors reduces our level of activity and exercise. Many people, especially those who live alone, have found themselves isolated from their friends and their loved ones.
The disruption of the routine circadian, lack of exercise and social isolation are considered to be related to the dysregulation of stress systems and the immune of the body, as well as the release of substances pro-inflammatory in the body and the brain.
Fortunately, just small positive changes to achieve a large reduction of stress. Keeping a routine by going to bed, rising and eating meals at regular times each day promotes a healthy functioning of the HPA axis and the immune system, which is linked to better overall health. Just twenty minutes of moderate exercise, which may include workout videos in the house or jogging in the neighborhood, to reduce inflammation and improve her mood.
Finally, talk regularly with relatives, even at a few meters distance, or using a communication device, is excellent to protect biological effects and psychological stress. Don’t forget that we are all in the same boat !
* * * * *
This text first appeared on the site of the franco-canadian of The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.