On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the outbreak of COVID-19, a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, should now be treated as a pandemic. But just as important as containing the spread of the disease is understanding why people, in countries across the globe, have found themselves infected and/or vulnerable to this new threat. One speculative reason, amongst others, could be this: The human superorganism is painfully stressed out, and is therefore unable to adequately fight off disease.
Today I briefed @WHO's Member States on #COVID19 and our decision to describe it as a pandemic. We have made this assessment for two main reasons:— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) March 12, 2020
-the speed & scale of transmission
-the lack of political commitment in some countries to control it, despite our frequent warnings.
First of all, the term “superorganism” is more of a metaphor here that allows one to draw a parallel between an individual human and humanity. (Incidentally, numerous arguments have been made for why humanity should be considered eusocial.) Meaning we can look at how stress and disease interact in an individual, and extrapolate that interaction out to humanity as a whole.
With that extrapolation in mind, consider the way stress negatively affects an individual’s ability to fight off, or recover from, a disease. For example, a Psychology Today article, titled “How Stress Affects the Immune System,” notes that “Ongoing stress makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which then releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergency situations but severely depresses our immunity at the same time.” The article adds, “Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease.”
And while that claim is broad, there is evidence to support it. For example, a group of MDs, including Aditi Nerurkar, Asaf Bitton, et al. performed a study in 2013, and found that “The prevalence of stress in primary care is high.” Their published study even says that “60% to 80% of [doctor/hospital] visits may have a stress-related component.” (The data was collected from thousands of physicians across the U.S.) On top of that, depression, which is strongly linked to stress, is, according to the WHO, “a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.”
If the phenomenon of stress making people especially vulnerable to disease is taken as an axiom—and there’s lots of other evidence that supports the idea that it should be—then the question becomes: How stressed out is humanity as a whole? According to available data, it seems that it is enormously stressed.
The majority of Americans (55%) in 2018 said they had experienced stress during a lot of the day, nearly half (45%) said they felt worried a lot and more than one in five (22%) said they felt anger a lot. https://t.co/kZxAQYzMMr pic.twitter.com/gxW3mQ3k8c— GallupNews (@GallupNews) April 25, 2019
Gallup’s 2018 Global Emotions Report, for example, found that about a third of people worldwide are stressed. “More than one in three people said they experienced a lot of worry (39%) or stress (35%) [in the last day]…” the report notes. And while the research says the world actually experienced a two-percent drop in overall stress versus 2017, it also noted that both worry and sadness, which were already at record levels, were each up by one percent.
Some countries are particularly stressed out, and the statistics are even more harsh. According to the same Gallup survey, 55% of American respondents—who could theoretically represent more than half the country—said that they felt stress “a lot of the day” prior to the day the survey was taken. An American Psychological Association survey administered in 2019 also found that “Nearly three in five adults (59%) say they could have used more emotional support [for stress] than they received in the past year, marking the highest proportion of adults who indicate this since APA first asked this question in 2014.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO, has said that “all countries can still change the course of this pandemic.” Bruce Detorres
But if this assumption is indeed true—if humanity is experiencing unprecedented stress and that stress is weakening its ability to fend off or recover from disease—then what can be done to better protect ourselves, our loved ones, and even strangers we don’t know half way around the world, from disease? After all, a sense of powerlessness can lead to more stress, which is, of course, is the last thing we need right now.
It seems that we can do with humanity is probably the exact same thing we could do with an individual infected with influenza or any similar infectious disease—mainly, let the patient rest. Obviously this piece of easier-said-than-done advice is hard to take, especially for those who can’t afford to skip work, but perhaps people everywhere could attempt to give themselves more slack, and allow themselves to relax without feeling guilty as much as they possibly can. In other words, maybe we can all wave the white flag—the white hanky, perhaps—and mutually agree to say: I’m doing my duty as a world citizen by taking it easy, and allowing myself to chill out. Or, to paraphrase the infinitely wise words of author Douglas Adams: LET’S NOT PANIC.
What do you think about the link between humanity’s stress levels and its vulnerability to disease? Is there indeed a link between worldwide stress levels and this outbreak of COVID-19, or is this just a minor factor overshadowed by other, more significant issues? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Feature image: NIAID / Kevin Gill