Therapist, trainer, writer


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Stress, Immunity, and the Coronavirus

The Earth is burning. So are we

At the beginning of this year (2020) I had been making plans to offer a new workshop, an exploration of personal symptoms of ill-health in relation to the crises in the world and of the Earth that touch each of us most deeply and intimately. Then the pandemic struck, I became sick with Covid-19, and we were all told to Stay at Home. So, of course, the workshop could not happen.

Instead we have all been given the opportunity to reflect deeply on health and sickness - our own, individually and collectively, and in relation to the Earth and Nature. There are many lessons to be learnt – we are probably still at the beginning.

My reflections brought me back to my explorations into the immune system in the 1990s, when I was introduced to the work of Professor Alfred Hassig and his research into the immune response (1). I found his ideas profoundly illuminating, though outside of the mainstream scientific thinking of the time. He was researching into the HIV-AIDS epidemic, and the effect of stress on immunity and the progress of the disease. In particular, the gay community had been devastatingly affected and there were understandably high levels of grief and fear amongst them.

The body reacts to all kinds of stress - psychological, traumatic, nutritional, environmental, toxic, and infectious - through the same neurophysiological pathways. Whatever triggers it, the stress response impacts the immune system in detrimental ways, and this makes us more vulnerable to infection and disease.

The immune system is a highly complex and sophisticated system of defence, but I will try to simplify a core aspect of it. Through the pandemic news reporting you might have become more familiar with the names and functions of ‘Antibodies, B-cells and T-cells’. Our B-cells enable the production of antibodies, which tackle specific pathogens (such as the coronavirus). They are like an army that is called up to fight an invading army (the virus), prevent it from getting to its target (the interior of our cells). They go into battle against the infection. This is our antibody immunity.

T-cells carry out the essential work of cleaning up during and after the battle – breaking down and destroying damaged or infected cells, incapacitating viral particles, and generally clearing up the mess. I think of them as the housekeeping system, even though they have aggressive names like ‘killer cells’. This is our cellular immunity, essential for general health and wellbeing. The message to Stay at Home potentially supported the cellular immunity of those of us fortunate enough to have a safe and nurturing home environment to retreat into.

As part of the stress response, the sympathetic nervous system activates a fight or flight mode of reaction (anxiety and a hyper-vigilant ‘Stay Alert’ stance may be part of this). This can create an overreaction of the antibody attack, eliciting an autoimmune response where the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy cells. In the case of the coronavirus and other infections, an excessive inflammatory response – a cytokine storm – is triggered in some patients. Stress can increase the likelihood of an excessive inflammatory response, and it also diminishes the effectiveness of the T-cells’ clearing up activities, so that viral particles and infected cells might not be properly cleared from the body.

Now we see the coronavirus wreaking havoc in some patients as the inflammatory response rages out of control.

Around the world we see rage flaring up at racial injustice. We see fires burning out of control in western USA. Fires have raged in Australia and the Arctic, and glaciers are melting from unprecedented levels of heat. Countries are at boiling point as people rise up in anger against corrupt and authoritarian leadership. And a virus which inflames the lungs and other vital organs of the body spreads out of control around the world.

Temperatures are rising and the Earth is burning. So are we.

Here in the UK, as arguments about Brexit begin to limp back onto our news agenda, it occurred to me that we in Britain succumbed to this pandemic at a moment in time when we were, as a nation, deeply stressed, even traumatized, and exhausted from years of heated ‘debate’ about Brexit; passions and tempers flared on both sides of the argument and deep anxiety was activated in many of us as we faced a national existential crisis. That all fell into the background of awareness as the pandemic took hold of our attention, but like any stress that we have not been able to resolve, it is somatised; the stress response becomes embedded in our cells, nerves and tissues, and begins to undermine the balanced function of the immune system.

Is this one of the (many) reasons why we in Britain had the worst death rate from the coronavirus in Europe this spring, I wonder? And one reason why the USA, burning up with rage over racial injustice, politically polarized to breaking point, and consumed by forest fires and other climate change induced catastrophes, has one of the worst death rates in the world? Our collective immune systems are out of balance, cellular immunity failing, and the fight or flight stress response exacerbating the inflammatory work of the B-cell armies. I suggest this might be a political analogy as well as a physiological reality.

So what can we do? It’s easy to say, less so to do when collectively we feel anxious, afraid, grieving, angry, and a host of other feelings that the pandemic has escalated in us. But we need to find ways to rest, nourish ourselves, dig deep inside to find pools of calm and safety. Government advice to go for an hour’s walk or run or cycle ride each day during lockdown was good advice. Eat well, exercise regularly, relax and rest, switch off the news when you need to, play well within the regulated ways we are still able to play, and treasure the social engagement that is allowed, as this more than anything will support the nervous system, and hence the immune system too, to re-balance. And if, at this time, we are not able to receive the nurturing touch that is also vital for health, loving attention to ourself and our body through meditation, mindful movement, or self-massage are ways to resource and help support our immune system.

Most importantly, when you don’t manage to do any of these things, don’t feel guilty! Just do whatever you need to do to get by, remember the things you love, that give you joy and pleasure, and be grateful when the next ‘good’ day arrives. Love and Gratitude are the two feelings which have the most beneficial effects on our health and wellbeing.

Each act of self-care and self-healing contributes to the healing of our world. As we are being shown so clearly right now, we are wholly interconnected and interdependent, and every small and positive personal act contributes to the collective wellbeing.

So, first and foremost, dig deep within to find loving kindness and compassion for yourself. It will support your immune system, and you will be in a better place to offer the same to others when they need it.

Nourish yourself, play, relax and rest, stay safe, be well.

[1] From an interview with Professor Alfred Hassig (Continuum 1997):

There are five identified categories of stress: infectious, toxic, traumatic, nutritional and psychological stress. If there is a chronic accumulation of several of these stress factors it causes a whole-body inflammation. That means antibody production increases in order to keep pathogens under control or eliminate them while production of T-cells is suppressed. This leads to an over-demand on the organism – fight or flight – without the necessary restoration time – anabolism. Body reserves are used up in an extensive way, more than they are built up – catabolism. This achievement-oriented switch in the vegetative nervous system is called stress by the Hungarian scientist Hans Seyle. The stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol are produced extensively. This hypercortisolism causes the Thymus gland to shrink and fewer T-cells are produced while T-cells in circulation migrate to the bone marrow where they activate B-cells. In the short term these mechanisms are life-saving; when persistent they damage the immune system and create illness. (accessed September 16th 2020) 

© Linda Hartley, October 2020