When lockdowns began across the world due to the spread of COVID-19, mental health professionals quickly warned that, if prolonged, the shutdowns could do much damage to large portions of the population. Several studies have since proven the experts’ unfortunate predictions correct.
“To get out of this pandemic, we need to break this vicious cycle,” said Dr. Yuhong Dong, an expert in antiviral drug development and infectious diseases and also Chief Scientific Officer of a Swiss biotech company. “In the fight against the pandemic, we need to inform people of their own anti-viral immunity, which is the root of fighting against this pandemic. Only when we grasp this fundamental can we find the fundamental solution to the pandemic.”
In effect, physical inactivity, along with mental, emotional, and spiritual stagnation, has led to cellular inactivity and stagnation, compromising many people’s innate immunity.
We spoke with Dr. Dong about the lingering effects of lockdowns—and how people could reverse those impacts.
There are a number of studies that give us a snapshot of the physical impacts of the lockdowns on individuals’ health. In general, there was a decrease in physical activity that may have led to, especially among senior adults, worsening in physical function.
A team from the University of Michigan conducted a nationally representative online survey of approximately 2,000 U.S. adults aged 50 to 80 years in early 2021 and found that:
- 36.9 percent reported reduced physical activity levels
- 35.1 percent reported reduced daily time spent on their feet since March 2020
- 37.1 percent reported lack of companionship
- 45.9 percent reported social isolation
Mental health has also been affected, and the toll on physical health that stems from it is not to be understated. US Census Bureau 2020 survey data found adults to be twice as likely to be depressed and anxious compared to before the pandemic, in 2019.
“Fear of the pandemic, government measures such as quarantines, lockdowns, and mask mandates have changed the way society functions, alienated people from each other, and caused changes in all aspects of work and life, resulting in widespread anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder in the population, especially among women and young people,” Dr. Dong said.
In a study published in The Lancet last October, more than 60 medical experts from the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy, Japan, Russia, and South Africa, who were concerned about the long Covid mental health problems, analyzed the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and regions in 2020. They found that the global prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders has increased significantly due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
“The top half of the chart below shows major depression and the bottom half shows anxiety. The right side is male and the left side is female. The horizontal coordinates are age. It can be seen that females of the age between 20 and 50 had a greater increase in prevalence than males did,” Dr. Dong said.
The study showed an estimated 53.2 million cases of major depressive disorder, a 27.6 percent increase, and an estimated 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorder, an 25.6 percent increase.
The graph below shows the growth of severe depression worldwide in 2020, the redder regions have a higher increase. It was also found that the increased prevalence of major depressive disorder was associated with two factors: 1) Covid infection rates and 2) reduced human mobility.
The increase in anxiety disorders is similar, with the redder regions having a higher increase.
The Growth of Depression
“We all have experienced negative emotions, such as unhappiness or sadness, which are so natural that people tend to treat them as part of their lives, seldom thinking about the reasons for them and rarely wanting to get rid of them. However, if these negative things accumulate for too long, or if they develop too seriously, they can lead to physical diseases and even induce serious consequences,” Dr. Dong said.
This is when unhappiness becomes depression.
“Depression is characterized by excessive or prolonged trapping in negative emotions and negative thinking that cannot be extricated. According to statistics, about one in five people suffer from depression at some point in their lives,” Dr. Dong said. Prolonged lockdowns also had the effect of prolonging depression.
“Any spiritual phenomenon has a material interpretation. A spiritual phenomenon corresponds to the transmission of information between nerve cells. There are 14 billion nerve cells in the brain, twice as many as people on earth, and they make up a rich microcosm that is constantly communicating and transmitting messages to each other,” Dr. Dong explained.
Nerve cells communicate with each other via neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and so on. With depression, the behavior of these cells’ communication changes.
“Current medical research has found that people with depression do not produce enough serotonin and dopamine in their brains, and that the communication between their nerve cells is inadequate. The state of the nerve cells of depressed patients is like the state of our earthly people being locked down, lacking interpersonal communication,” Dr. Dong explained.
“People with severe depression have a chronic lack of communication between nerve cells and low energy levels in their bodies, and their chronic illnesses tend to worsen. Therefore, negative emotions, which correspond to negative substances at the microscopic level, should not be ignored and should not accumulate. So once we have negative emotions, we should remove them,” Dr. Dong said.
“There have been numerous immunological studies showing that if a person is in a state of chronic stress and depression, the release of stress hormones (cortisol) increases, which suppresses the function of immune cells (including phagocytes, natural killer cells, T cells) and inhibits their ability to fight viruses,” Dr. Dong said.
“Depression also increases the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines, leading to a state of chronic inflammation, which in turn can easily trigger or aggravate chronic diseases (such as cardiovascular disease and cancer) and lead to further deterioration of human health.”
“The pandemic has also had a negative impact on the mental health of health care workers worldwide, with a much higher prevalence of mental health disorders among health care workers than the general population. They have increased irritability, anger, depression and instability, and a 13.5 percent prevalence of post-traumatic syndrome.”
The reduced physical activity and social isolation of pandemic-related lockdowns has turned into deterioration of physical function, reduced mobility, and an increase in psychological problems, according to Dr. Dong. All this adds up to reduced ability in these individuals to fight viral infections to begin with.
“People who exercise less and are depressed have a decrease in NK cell activity and a decrease in the ability of T and B lymphocytes to clear viruses, resulting in an overall decrease in the antiviral immunity of human immune cells, making people more susceptible to viral infections,” she said.
This has created a vicious cycle. With people being more susceptible to viral infections, the world has seen a prolonged period of non-recovery from the virus, and this resulted in many governments prolonging the use of lockdowns—which only further decreased people’s innate antiviral functions. It became, Dr. Dong said, a vicious cycle and prolonged pandemic.
A better approach, in her view, would have been to increase awareness among the general public about how to enhance the human body’s own antiviral immunity, helping people eliminate stress and anxiety and depression, and education about nutrition, sleep, fitness, and mental health.
“We could enhance the antiviral immunity of the entire population, reduce the chance of virus infection, share successful experiences and strengthen interaction, establishing a virtuous cycle of reducing the infection rate and ending the outbreak,” she said.
“There is no need to be afraid of an epidemic,” Dr. Dong said. “In fact, we often don’t understand how the human body works and fights viruses. The human body has a complete set of immune defenses against viruses, from the outside to the inside,” she said.
Our Immune System
“The skin has blocking, purifying, and cleaning functions. When airborne viruses enter the organism through breathing, nasal hairs are stimulated to sneeze. By sneezing, mucus on the surface of the throat and tracheobronchial tubes adheres to the virus, and the virus is discharged from the body by coughing and spitting. The eye has a similar self-protection mechanism,” Dr. Dong said.
“The mucous membrane [interferon]: When the virus enters the epithelial cells, the cells automatically activate the antiviral mechanism, mainly by producing interferon, the natural enemy of the virus, which prevents the replication of the virus. This substance has the ability to mobilize the cellular antiviral infection mechanism. Interferon acts as a commander, giving instructions and coordinating various cells and signaling pathways that work together to fight the virus.”
“The innate immune cells are able to recognize external viruses, and they have a perfect scanning and detection mechanism, just like the FBI’s face recognition technology, which is very sensitive. Once they scan, they know if it is a virus; it’s very powerful. Therefore, if the innate immunity is strong, a person will not be infected,” she said.
“People with normal antiviral immunity are strong enough to block the spread of a virus, which is why many people are exposed to a large number of viruses for a long time without being infected,” Dr. Dong said.
But fear plays a powerful role in signaling to our cells how to act.
“Fear is a negative emotion that causes the secretion of stress hormones that suppress the function of immune cells,” Dr. Dong explained. To end the negative cycle, people have to stop isolating, and refresh themselves.
Art and Beauty
Refreshment can come in myriad forms, but an expedient way is through seeing something bright and beautiful.
“Eighty percent of the information received by the human body comes from the eyes,” Dr. Dong said. “For example, when people see a beautiful painting or landscape, they can’t help but smile.”
As modern research has proven, color and light are frequencies, wavelengths, and fields of energy particles.
In fact, these energy particles that we see as the energy field of color can enter the human body, be absorbed by cells, tissues, organs, and cause changes in the energy of cells, tissues, and organs, Dr. Dong explained.
One example of this effect is how when seeing red, people often become excited, and blue is often calming. There are also various colored light therapies that have made it onto the consumer market in recent times.
“Sound is also a wave, and each note has its own frequency, pitch, and wavelength,” she said. “The function of the ear is to convert the energy in sound into a form that can be perceived by us—sound. There are also many frequencies that are not converted into sound and are not heard, but that exist in live performance. These frequencies can also be transmitted to our bodies; music resonates through the frequencies and links to our bodies.”
The human body produces various frequencies as well, she added.
“The human body has a heart rate and rhythmic breathing rate. Gastrointestinal motility and autonomic discharge have a certain rhythm and frequency,” she said.
During a live performance filled with color and sound, the audience is in fact surrounded by the energy particles of that color, light, and sound.
“And a synchronized resonance occurs. This resonance can be from the outside to the inside, from the macro to the micro, so the skin, internal organs, and even cells are resonating.”
Recently, the New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts has created interest in doctors and audiences because of its potential health benefits. It has long been the only performing arts company to tour the world at such scale of several hundred global performances a year, via seven equal sized touring companies, and during this pandemic era that fact has come under a spotlight. Added to that, many holistic doctors have spoken highly of the therapeutic effects of seeing Shen Yun, a live performance of dance and music that is filled with color, universal values, and a message of compassion. It’s the kind of performance that audience members often say leaves them in tears of joy and filled with hope.
“When a person is in tears, it is often related to the operation of the autonomic nervous system.” Dr. Dong said. “The autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating unconscious behavior, is composed of two systems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nerve is responsible for coping with emergencies, putting the person in a state of tension and preparedness, like stepping on the gas pedal; the parasympathetic nerve is responsible for relaxation, such as the secretion of tears, like stepping on the brakes. This means that the parasympathetic nerves are excited and in a state of deep relaxation.”
That deep relaxation is the antithesis of chronic stress and depression.
“A beautiful performance can produce happy, relaxed, calm emotions in an audience—effectively eliminating the long-term accumulation of stress, depression, and other negative emotions in the hearts of the audience,” Dr. Dong said.
And, like how negative emotions has a real physical impact on health, these positive emotions do too.
“It lifts the pressure on the white blood cells, natural killer cells, T cells and other immune cells that inhibit the function of these cells, thus enhancing the antiviral ability of the immune cells,” Dr. Dong said. Music therapy is a form of healing that goes back to antiquity, and is still going strong today. “There are nearly 80 universities which have music therapy majors, and more than 200 countries have music therapy associations.”
“Research has found that music has at least three effects on people,” Dr. Dong said. “First, it stimulates the brain, helping people concentrate and work efficiently. Second, it can regulate mood; some insomniacs have found that listening to relaxing and soothing music aids sleep, and others find it helps with their depression. A fellow physician told me about a patient who took her child to watch Shen Yun’s performance, after which his depression lifted, his demeanor changed, and even now, over a year later, he has not relapsed.”
“And third, once stress and depression are relieved, the immune system comes back on. A study found that the salivary immunoglobulin IgA, a reliable marker of mucosal immunity and one of the important first lines of defense against viral infections, is particularly sensitive to music. After listening to relaxing music, the content of IgA increases significantly,” Dr. Dong said.
Color has an impact on immunity as well.
“In 1942, Russian scientist SV Krakov proved that red light consumes body energy and is related to stress, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Meanwhile, white and blue light preserves body energy, slows the heart rate, and increases intestinal and most glandular activity, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system,” Dr. Dong said.
“Dr. C Norman Shealy in Missouri uses flashing bright lights and colored lights to treat pain and depression, and has shown that color and light therapy changes the neurochemicals in the patient’s brain,” Dr. Dong said.
And then there was the Harvard study which quantified on one level the power of compassion.
Students were shown a 50-minute film of Mother Teresa performing acts of kindness, helping the sick and dying poor of Calcutta.
“The audience’s immune function was enhanced and remained high for an hour afterwards. This effect happened even to those who did not like Mother Teresa, their brains subconsciously resonated with her good deeds and the power of compassion,” Dr. Dong said.
This is far from the only study proving a link between kindness and health benefits.
“A 2013 review published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry showed that oxytocin production increases when people do good deeds and adopt positive social behaviors, and oxytocin has been shown to promote immunity. According to a 2017 review in Frontiers in Immunology, oxytocin can reduce stress hormone release and improve antiviral capabilities,” Dr. Dong said.
“Therefore, people who do good deeds for others and are kind to others will have increased levels of oxytocin in their bodies and increased antiviral immunity, which will help those kind people to better cope with the pandemic. The oxytocin in the body of those who witness the good deeds will also benefit. If a performance includes a story of acts of kindness towards others, it can help increase the audience’s oxytocin levels, which in turn can boost immunity and stress resistance,” Dr. Dong said.
All this to say, we cannot discount the importance of the role our thoughts play.
“Not only a psychological phenomenon, thoughts are material; the role of thought is visible, tangible, and real. Thoughts affect the functions of various organs and cells in the body, and can even affect the expression of genes in cells,” she said. “The effect is far-reaching.”
A well known 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people with different values in life showed different patterns of gene expression in their immune cells. For example, people who pursue human justice and eudaimonic happiness, seek greater value in life, and often do charity work have better levels of interferon expression, stronger antibodies, and reduced expression of inflammatory genes, all of which are beneficial in fighting viral infections, Dr. Dong explained. Meanwhile people with a hedonistic view of happiness, who focus on general materialistic enjoyment and think less about other things, have expression of genes in their immune cells which is very unfavorable to fight against viruses.
Watching Shen Yun, audience members have reported cases of their pain, even chronic severe pain, completely disappearing. Dr. Dong reasoned this may be due to the release of endorphins and oxytocin while watching the performance. Others reported no longer having difficulty breathing. The air quality certainly didn’t change, Dr. Dong said it was mainly due to, perhaps, the inflammation having been significantly reduced in the lungs.
In the 1970s, UCLA professor of psychiatric and biobehavioral sciences Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a life threatening autoimmune disease with low chance of recovery.
“Cousins tailored himself to a holistic approach that included spirituality and laughing, prescribing himself comedy movies, eventually recovering from the disease,” Dr. Dong said.
Dr. Dong shared a similar experience she went through two decades ago.
While she was conducting her doctoral research, she was tired, chronically anxious, and physically and mentally exhausted. Suddenly, she was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, a serious disease, and her chronic back pain got bad enough that she was prescribed strong analgesics to relieve the pain. Not wanting to become dependent on pain relievers, Dr. Dong tried to hold out for two days.
“My older sister came to visit me—she’s a very funny person and she told me a joke. I burst into laughter involuntarily, and suddenly, the long-standing pain suddenly disappeared without a trace,” she said. “And after that, there was no more pain.”
“This was a big shock to me,” Dr. Dong admitted. “It turns out that the spirit and the material are very closely related.”