Doctors told you that your COVID-19 virus infection cleared months ago. Although you no longer have breathlessness and your oxygen levels have returned to normal, something is not feeling right. In addition to constant headaches, you have to struggle with seemingly simple tasks. The fatigue you experience makes moving from bed to kitchen feel like an achievement. Most worrying about you, however, is a feeling of fear, a nervousness so severe that you can feel your heart pounding. Constant worry now keeps you from sleeping at night.
What are the psychological effects of COVID-19?
We’re still learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the brain. Data from Wuhan suggests the virus can penetrate the brain, with more than a third of infected patients developing neurological symptoms. In addition to the brain infection, we know that the pandemic has resulted in deterioration in mental health due to the psychological stress of isolation, loneliness, unemployment, financial stress, and the loss of loved ones. The prescription of antidepressants has increased, intimate partner violence has increased, and thoughts of suicide have increased, especially among young adults.
Does COVID-19 infection increase the risk of psychiatric disorders?
Until recently, mental health outcomes as a result of COVID-19 infection were unknown. A new study of electronic health records of 69 million people found that COVID-19 infection increased the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, dementia, or insomnia. Additionally, people with psychiatric disorders were 65% more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19, which may be due to behavioral factors, lifestyle factors (such as smoking), inflammation, or psychiatric medications. This is the first major study to show that infection with COVID-19 actually increases your risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
The long-term psychological effects of COVID-19 infection remain to be seen. After the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the offspring of mothers infected while pregnant were found to have higher rates of schizophrenia. It is believed that viral infection during pregnancy can be a risk factor for developing a mental illness that is related to the body’s immune response. If COVID-19 infection increases the risk of mental illness in offspring even slightly, this could have a major impact on the population given the high number of infections worldwide.
Do you have a psychiatric disorder as a result of COVID-19?
You may feel tired, stressed, or sad because of the effects COVID-19 has on your body or because of life circumstances. Remember, however, that screening tools are not diagnostic, even if you see a doctor that tests you positive for depression or anxiety. People with physical symptoms of COVID-19 infection will often test positive for depression because symptoms of infection often overlap symptoms of depression. For example, poor sleep, difficulty concentrating, and decreased appetite may be due to a medical illness rather than depression.
In order for a doctor to make an accurate diagnosis, you may have to wait some time to monitor symptoms development. Although antidepressants are often prescribed for mood and anxiety disorders, keep in mind that mild to moderate symptoms often go away on their own as life conditions improve. If this is your first episode of depression or your first experience of anxiety, you may not need special treatment if your symptoms are mild. When you start taking any medication, regularly review your treatment with your doctor and make any necessary changes.
What steps can you take to minimize the psychological consequences of a COVID-19 infection?
- To be vaccinated. This is especially important for people with psychiatric disorders who are independent risk factors for COVID-19 infection.
- Keep wearing a mask and clearance. However, the goal is to maintain social connections.
- Use resources. Online therapies, workbooks and mobile applications (COVID-Coach, CBT-I-Coach) can offer benefits without the risk of exposure during treatment.
- Stand up for others. Long haul COVID-19 drivers may not be able to advocate for changes in the workplace, life insurance, or mental health coverage, especially if they are suffering from fatigue and brain fog.
- Do physical activity. In addition to being as effective as medication for mood and anxiety, physical activity also helps with memory and heart health.
- Use relaxing rituals. When the world seems out of control, try establishing a ritual. Having control over even part of your day can make you feel more grounded.
- Be careful with that Sleep pills and medication as needed. Short-term use can quickly turn into long-term use, leading to drug tolerance, addiction, and fear of rebounding.
- Limit alcohol and cannabis use. Prolonged stress from caring for sick loved ones, unemployment, prolonged time at home and relationship stressors can lead to increased and problematic substance use.
- Watch out for caffeine. If post-COVID fatigue is severe, discuss other options with your doctor, as excess caffeine can make anxiety and sleep disorders worse.
- Check in and ask how you can help your loved ones, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. It is often much easier to turn down for help than it is to ask for help. When someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts in private, a simple check-in call or a friendly gesture can be life-saving. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is available to anyone in dire need.