Contagious Viruses to Anxious Contagion: A Thought Experiment

I’d like readers to engage in a thought experiment I’ll describe later in this essay.  But first I’m going to make an obvious disclaimer: I am not a doctor.  Anything sounding vaguely medical that follows is either derived from something I’ve read, or I’ve made it up.

I’m thinking about Covid-19 a lot these days. That’s probably just me-no one else is thinking about it I’m sure.   I have also been thinking about the trigger for the Covid-19 disease, the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This virus, a particle 100 times smaller than a bacterium and generally considered a non-living organism by those who study it, has caused darn near the entire human species to go into quarantine.  Thatis an impressive feat of nature. (Someone I know observed, “Maybe this is nature fighting back”.) Infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is lethal for some, yet invisible in others.

The virus is spread through person-to-person contact. The number of virus particles one is exposed to is called “viral load.” That, plus the overall strength of an individual’s immune system, are probably the main factors determining how sick an infected person becomes. (Research into possible genetic differences between the affected and the unaffected is ongoing.*)

People with uncompromised immune systems may encounter a relatively small number of virus particles, so few that their bodies effectively defend against them. These folks probably won’t fall ill. They may even develop some level of immunity against future attacks (this part I’m making up-again-not a doctor). Unaware of their internal invaders, asymptomatic carriers unknowingly spread the virus during every close encounter.

Other individuals get sick and recover, while a small but not insignificant percentage of sufferers dies. SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t kill them per se. Rather, fatality results from the body’s reaction to the viral infection. Victims progress from mild symptoms to severe pneumonia and/or respiratory failure. Without adequate personal protective equipment, those in close contact with the demonstrably ill remain at great risk for absorbing large viral loads. This explains why exposed healthcare workers don’t just get sick, they often get very sick.**

The term anxiety refers to the activation of the instinctive threat responses of fight, flight, or freeze. This reactivity is handed down from generation to generation, influenced by events in each successive lifetime and variable between individuals and families. It is now understood that a heightened “anxiety load” is a risk factor for potentially every disease process.

Here is the thought experiment:  Replace the references to SARS-CoV-2 with the word Anxiety. There’s a little mental stretching needed, for example where I wrote, “the number of virus particles…” In that case, replace with “the amount of anxiety”, or “the level of anxiety”. You get the point. Both SARS-CoV-2 and anxiety are highly contagious.  Both can be “caught” from visible and invisible carriers. And either may leave a person virtually asymptomatic or, in the worst-case scenario, activate an underlying condition triggering a deadly disease progression.

I don’t believe the comparison of viral and anxiety transmission is simply metaphorical. Both are natural, evolutionary processes. Someday science may be able to map a straight line from contagious viruses to anxious contagion. In the meantime, a thought experiment during this anxious time may offer a welcome distraction.




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