COVID-19 Paranoia: Can Your Thoughts Actually Make You Sick?

Our state of mind may play a bigger role in our health and wellness than we thought. Interest in this basic idea has resurfaced once again with all the paranoia caused by the coronavirus pandemic. So, what does this mean for the average person? Read on…

Most of us know of that one person who goes jogging every morning and is really careful about their diet, but has a laundry list of health problems. We might also have that one acquaintance who is a couch potato that eats junk food all the time but appears healthy all the time. One possible factor at play which might explain these contradictions is the connection between the mind and body—something which many people are actually familiar with but then dismiss as being irrational, unscientific or even taboo.

But it’s actually quite simple. Take, for example, how stress can give you an upset stomach. The opposite is also true, however, and the suggestion that you’ve been living a healthy live can boost your confidence—and, in turn, your immune system—to get you through even the unhealthiest conditions. All this becomes even more relevant today amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If, say, you feel that you have a fever … do you panic or do you keep in mind that it could just be a normal, everyday fever?

A growing body of research suggests that emotions and thoughts can affect our health, even leading to or preventing serious health related problems. So, how does this all work?

Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts come in many forms: Being cynical, paranoid, dealing an abundance of personal problems and more, plenty of which we might not be aware of. And it is believed that negative thoughts can contribute to the development of serious health problems. One theory is that being stressed or depressed, production of the cortisol hormone shoots up, which messes with your immune system’s ability to control inflammation. This, in turn, can lead to more serious diseases over time.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, explains that thoughts and emotions have widespread effects on bodily processes like metabolism, hormone release and immune functions. “Many negative emotions such as anger, fear and frustration become problematic when those emotions turn into a more permanent disposition or a habitual outlook on the world,” she points out.

As mentioned earlier, this also includes emotions that we don’t often associate with bad health. Being cynical, for instance, can lead to heart disease, as shown in a 2009 study published in the Circulation journal based on data of nearly 100,000 women. Then there’s the ugly cousin of being cynical: being hostile, which has been shown in many studies to increase the risks of developing type 2 diabetes, heart attack and also a greater chance of developing disabilities later in life.

All that being said, improving your health in this context can be as simple as a change of perspective. “We know that neural pathways are changing every minute of your entire life and that your brain is generating new cells throughout your life,” Simon-Thomas says. “And this neurogenesis is not only associated with the formation of new memories, but with mood stability, as well.”

The Placebo Effect

Besides being able to produce happy thoughts, one of our mind’s greatest power is to create what is known as the Placebo Effect: A term coined in the medical field for the phenomenon where some people experience an effect after the administration of an inactive substance or sham treatment. It could be a pill, a shot or some other type of “fake” treatment. What all placebos have in common is that they do not contain an active substance meant to affect a person’s health.

A study by Professor Ted Kaptchuk from Harvard Medical School was done to 270 patients seeking relief from arm pain, with half the participants being treated with acupuncture and the other half would pain-reducing pills. But here’s the twist: The pills were made from cornstarch and the acupuncture needles never pierced the skin and were retractable. Those receiving the pills were told that it would cause side effects.

Soon after the study began, patients from both groups reported feeling sluggish and experiencing increased pain. However, most of the patients from both groups reported real pain relief and the acupuncture group felt better than those on the pain-relief pill. Mind you, the group that felt relief did not hear about any potential side effects.

These studies show that what we think and what influences our thoughts can significantly influence our perception of physical pain and discomfort. Furthermore, the experiment suggests that even if we don’t have any health conditions, being paranoid or hearing things related to our health won’t do you any good as it impacts us subconsciously.

Today, with paranoia over COVID-19 being of the focal points of our world, it becomes even more important to understand how mind-over-matter works. Put simply, when you somehow manage to catch a fever—which might put you in a tricky situation right now—make sure that you don’t jump straight into thinking that you’ve contracted the virus. Take any necessary safety precautions, stay calm and why not try to erase the negative thoughts? Also, don’t go straight to the pills and medication; use your positive thoughts to create your very own placebo effect.