Thursday, 3 December 2015

Holiday season or flu season?

Holiday season or flu season?

December... Is it really the most wonderful time of the year? Contrary to this common misconception, December can actually be the most stressful time of the year...whether it is due to last-minute holiday shopping, family reunions, travelling plans, final exams, and last but not least, flu season (which makes everything else that much more unbearable)! It is undeniable that many of us often get sick around this time of year, despite endless efforts to avoid it. So, this leads to the following question: is there a special trick to protect ourselves from this season's flu? 

Evidence has shown that interpersonal stressors and the risk of developing a viral disease, such as the flu, are highly related. Thus, previous research suggests that perceived social support can protect an individual against the side effects of stress, which includes diseases such as the flu. Research by Sheldon and colleagues used a sample of 404 healthy adults to determine if social support (any psychological and/or material resources that facilitate coping within stressful situations), is associated with the impact of interpersonal stress that is related to infectious diseases like the flu. This was tested by administering a virus to participants in a controlled environment that induced cold-like symptoms. Antibodies were then measured before and after exposure to the virus in order to test if individuals who reported greater social support had more antibodies fighting off the virus compared to those who reported less social support. Furthermore, participants were interviewed each night for 14 days in order to collect information about any interpersonal conflict, level of social support, and number of hugs received in the given day.

Results revealed that there was a relationship between higher social support and more rapid clearance of nasal congestion as opposed to those with less social support. Overall, a correlation was found between individuals who reported more tension/stress and higher risk of infections, but only if they also reported low social support. However, for individuals who reported high social support, tension/stress was not related to infection. It was thus concluded that participants who reported greater amounts of social support were associated with less severe symptoms. The same results were found when received hugs were investigated, suggesting that hugs are an effective way to channel social support. Consequently, a relationship was found between people who were hugged more often and less severe infection and illness-related symptoms. This suggests that providing someone with social support, such as a hug, empathy, caring, and reassurance to the person, can be helpful during stress-provoking situations. 

Therefore, in order to avoid the harmful effects of stress induced by the demands of holiday shopping, final exams, or a busy daily life, remember to surround yourself with loved ones who can provide social support, along with warm hugs and make this year's inevitable flu a little more bearable. This holiday season give your loved ones the gift of hugging!

- Paola Bonilla

  •     Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26(2), 135-147. doi:10.1177/0956797614559284

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