As noted in a posting by the Library of Medicine, scientific investigation of the effects of stress on humans spans more than 50 years. Studies have shown that stress can affect the human nervous system and even cause structural changes in different parts of the brain. More recently, it has been shown that stress is contagious, with the ability to spread from person to person like a virus.
To test this phenomenon, in 2010, a neuroscientist named Tony W. Buchanan, a professor at St. Louis University, conducted a study measuring the response of people who were asked to simply observe stress in others. Buchanan found that the observers’ cortisol (a substance produced by the adrenal glands) spiked from these encounters, further verifying the idea that stress is contagious.
“You probably have experienced stress contagion,” Buchanan writes in a post on BreathingLabs.com. “A friend drops by and spends a few minutes complaining about their work or their partner. Suddenly, even though these aren’t your problems, you’re breathing faster and feeling a little on edge. That’s because, as you’ve listened, your body has given you a quick jab of adrenaline and cortisol — hormones that mobilize energy stores for running, fighting and finishing projects on deadline. Stacks of research show that over time, frequent jolts of stress are corrosive to the body.”
Adds neuroscientist Jaideep Bains, a Hotchkiss Brain Institute professor who has extensively studied how stress imprints on the brain: “We think of ourselves really as individuals who have our own experiences, and we don’t think very much about how the experiences of others and what they’re going through might also shape us.”
Already a universal part of today’s world, brace yourself for another jolt of stress contagion with the announcement of the seasonal arrival of new threats to human health. Winter is coming. When people hear those three words today, the epic hit “Game of Thrones” most likely comes to mind. The words were often echoed by cast members as a reminder to be constantly watchful of impending threats.
“For more than two years, shuttered schools and offices, social distancing and masks granted Americans a reprieve from flu and most other respiratory infections. This winter is likely to be different,” writes The New York Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli. “An expected winter rise in Covid cases appears poised to collide with a resurgent influenza season, causing a ‘twindemic’ — or even a ‘tripledemic,’ with a third pathogen, respiratory syncytial virus, or R.S.V., in the mix.”
Mandavilli writes, “In the United States, flu typically begins to pick up in October and runs through March, peaking sometime between December and February. “But in some states, this year’s season is already underway.”
Reports NBC News’ Erika Edwards, “The increase comes as other respiratory viruses, including RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, are also spiking in kids. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 76% of pediatric hospital beds nationwide are full.”
Notes Time magazine, the health data company IQVIA has been analyzing data from insurance claims filed by doctors’ offices, hospitals and urgent care centers in the country for three decades. Focusing on case trends over the previous year, they found that diagnoses of flu are already tracking at record highs. “Even before flu season began, back in spring 2022, cases of influenza began trending well above average for the past three years, reaching nearly 950,000 cases weekly by mid-October (compared to around 400,000 at the same time in 2019, just before the pandemic began),” writes reporter Alice Park.
“Flu season in the southern hemisphere, which often gives the U.S. a preview of what to expect, struck early and hard this year. Australia, for example, confronted its worst flu season in five years, with nearly 30,000 lab-confirmed cases of influenza at its weekly peak in June; flu season there tends to peak later, between July and September,” she adds. It is also noted that other respiratory viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, a severe acute respiratory syndrome related to coronavirus, is also on the rise.
Surmises Park, “One reason why cases are climbing so quickly (especially among younger children), and so early in the season, could be because COVID-19 restrictions that closed schools and kept kids at home protected many of them from getting any infections over the past two years.”
Coronavirus cases are low, concedes The New York Times report, but are beginning to rise in some parts of the country. “Several European countries, including France, Germany and Britain, are experiencing an uptick in hospitalizations and deaths, prompting experts to worry that the United States will follow suit, as it has with previous waves,” reports Mandavilli.
At one facility, Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago, every inpatient bed has been full for more than six weeks and “emergency room volume is up more than 150%,” says NBC News’ Aria Bendix. Adds Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the hospital, the flow of patients is like “a treadmill that never ends.”
“Everywhere is overcrowded, overrun and understaffed, and having a really difficult time dealing with both unprecedented numbers of cases but also an off-season timing,” says Dr. Michael Koster, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
The NBC report goes on to say that the surge has caught doctors off guard, since cases of RSV and other respiratory viruses usually peak in winter. Cases this year started climbing this summer, and it is now the dominant virus in many hospitals. RSV often presents much like the common cold, but in severe cases can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis (an infection in the airways).
As hospitals prepare themselves for the expected wave of flu cases that is just beginning, the stress and anxiety of what may come is sure to affect us all.