There’s a dangerous contagion on the loose that threatens can make the coronavirus outbreak even worse: Fear. Numerous studies have shown that chronic fear has a very damaging impact on the immune system. The flip side also seems to be true: Positive emotions support the immune system.
A brief experience of fear won’t have any lasting impact. It’s fine to keep watching those zombie movies if you’re self isolating! But long term, ongoing fear, anxiety, stress or loneliness will compromise your immune response. Given that the coronavirus Covid-19 is expected to be a risk for at least the next 18 months, we need to manage our emotional response to the outbreak. Paying attention and acting on the latest advice is rational; contributing to anxiety and fear is not.
This is another reminder that the mind and body are a single integrated system, what Candace Pert called the ‘bodymind’. We know that the brain is directly wired to the immune system and numerous studies suggest that chronic fear can lead to immune system dysfunction.
There’s less evidence for the more controversial idea that happiness can boost immunity, but what we have so far is fascinating. Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a ground breaking study back in 2003. The research established “that people with a pattern of brain activity that has been associated with positive [emotions] are also the ones to show the best response to the flu vaccine.” Study Shows Brain Activity Influences Immune Function.
It’s not just fear and coronavirus that are contagious; happiness is too! If you feel happy, there’s a 25% chance that a friend living nearby will become happier as a result. Happiness spreads. It tends to ripple out into the wider social network to reach friends of friends you’ve never met. It works online too; researchers found that reading positive Facebook posts triggered happiness in 64% of people.
The takeaways from all this research are clear and become more important with every new infection:
- Chronic fear and anxiety will worsen the impact of the coronavirus outbreak;
- loneliness damages the immune response, so take care of people who are socially isolating;
- positive emotions like happiness may boost your immune system;
- happiness is both healing and contagious.
Stay realistic and stay safe, but try to nurture positive emotions in yourself and your community. It’s love, not fear, that will get us thorough this crisis.