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Pandemics and Psychoneuroimmunology

COVID-19 and fear.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was a profound truth voiced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his inaugural address confronting the national crisis of the Great Depression.

As psychologists and clinicians, we live day in and day out in the intrapsychic land of fear. Roosevelt's speechwriter identified a sage truth regarding fear. Fear is there to protect us from an identified danger. But we cannot allow it to take us over and surrender to the prolonged cortisone secretions elicited by the neuro-chemical alarm mechanisms of the limbic system.

Viktor Frankl told about how he calculated he had a 1-in-29 chance of surviving the Nazi death camp. He decided to live as if he would beat those slim odds. He did indeed survive and created a new form of psychotherapy, called logotherapy, which focuses on finding meaning in life.

Jorge H. Daruna (2012) reminds us that the term "psychoneuroimmunology" was first introduced in Dr. Robert Ader’s presidential address to the American Psychosomatic Society in 1980, in which he discussed research that shows a fundamental unity of how the immune system is impacted by psychological factors. Daruna presents research that demonstrates how psychosocial stress is a risk factor with respect to disease onset and progression and the complex factors that determine pathogen exposure outcome.

Ader was an experimental psychologist who drew his conclusions from a Pavlovian theoretical framework which postulated the immune system could be conditioned and was under the influence of the brain (Bert, 1997). Bert notes that an earlier related term, "psychoimmunology," was first proposed by psychiatrist George Solomon based on his observations of how personality affects disease.

To quote Dr. Candace B. Bert (1997, pg. 190), “Viruses use the same receptors as neuropeptides to enter into a cell, and depending on how much of the natural peptide for a particular receptor is around and available to bind, the virus that fits that receptor will have an easier or harder time getting into the cell. Because the molecules of emotion are involved in the process of a virus entering the cell, it seems logical to assume that the state of our emotions will affect whether or not we succumb to viral infection.” Bert reminds us that the nervous and immune systems are in communication with each other.

I was fortunate to discover a recent podcast with Dr. Bruce Lipton and his nephew Alex talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Lipton, a cellular biologist, broke down the dynamics of a virus and gave his insightful perspective on the current pandemic.

Lipton emphasized how COVID-19 is a flu virus, one that human beings have not encountered previously so we have no immunity memory for it. It will take time to build immunity. According to Lipton, one of the major problems we are currently facing is the fear response that is being fed, in part, by the media. When we are in a constant fear response, our immune systems are compromised because vital resources and energy are being channeled to mobilize a fight or flight response.

Many people have become glued to their televisions, being kept in a state of hyper-alertness and cortisol-driven fear responses. When in this state, we feel powerless and vulnerable. Lipton emphasizes taking back our power and doing what we can to emotionally enforce our immune systems. For Lipton, fear is where the problem is. He actually sees the pandemic as a symptom of a critical imbalance between the human race and the planet. As a result of misguided human actions, many mass extinctions have already been caused. The current pandemic has been a time-out for everyone and an opportunity to reflect on how business-as-usual may not be working anymore. It is a call to action to a more enlightened, sustainable way of walking on Earth.

Lipton is the author of the widely acclaimed book The Biology of Belief in which he discusses how unconscious programs set in place in early childhood can rob us of choice in adult life. He discusses how living with overwhelmed, chronically anxious parents can cause us to live fear-based lives that drain us of energy that could be directed to greater creativity and fulfillment. I highly recommend his work and agree with him that this pandemic crisis is also an opportunity for us to collectively do better as we face the global challenges before us.

We must all do our part to protect those whose immune systems are more compromised by practicing informed public health recommendations, while remembering that happiness is our individual responsibility. COVID-19 reminds us to include a discussion of psychological factors in being able to fight off the virus by maintaining optimal immune functions. Staying positive, remembering to laugh, and maintaining hope and optimism may be crucial to maintaining a strong immunity and our very survival. We must also grieve the tragic loss of so many who have fallen from this deadly virus.


Daruna, Jorge (2012). Introduction to Psychoneuroimmunology. (2ed Edition). London: Elsevier.

Lipton, Bruce (2004). The Biology of Belief. Carlsbad, California: Hay House.

Pert, Candace B. (1997). Molecules of Emotion. New York: Scribner.

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