Are you feeling overwhelmed and anxious after having COVID-19? If so, know that you are not alone.
Anxiety is a common symptom of Post-COVID syndrome, also known as long COVID. Research shows that up to 26% of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 may suffer from anxiety, depression, and sleeping disorders for up to six months after the initial illness.
But you don’t have to worry. Anxiety disorders, even those caused or exacerbated by COVID-19, are manageable. Here, we explore how to identify and treat your post-COVID anxiety so you can start feeling better soon!
What is Post-COVID anxiety?
Post-COVID anxiety is characterized by feelings of fear, uncertainty, and distress that occur alongside other long COVID symptoms.
Long COVID is a “constellation of mid- and long-term symptoms” including:
- Brain fog
- Shortness of breath
- Post-exertional malaise
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- Changes in smell and taste
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder
These symptoms can last anywhere between a few weeks to several months after contracting COVID-19.
Symptoms of post-COVID anxiety
Experts have yet to establish definitive criteria for post-COVID anxiety symptoms. However, many of those who report having feelings of anxiety while recovering from COVID say that their symptoms are similar to those of other common anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, illness or health anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder.
Some of the most common symptoms of Post-COVID anxiety include:
- A persistent feeling of restlessness or being ‘on edge’
- Constant worrying that cannot be controlled
- Chronic fatigue
- Muscle aches, headaches, unexplained pains and digestive issues
- Sleep difficulties, including insomnia and trouble staying asleep
- Difficulty concentrating on simple tasks or difficulty completing usual activities
- A general distrust of others
- Irritability or moodiness
- Withdrawal and social isolation
- Panic attacks
What’s causing Post-COVID anxiety?
There is no single cause of Post-COVID anxiety. It is caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors. People who have a family or personal history of mental illness are also more predisposed to experiencing Post-COVID anxiety.
Researchers at Northwestern University found that neuroinflammation and nerve cell damage is linked to anxiety development in long COVID patients – even those who were never hospitalized.
Biological risk factors include:
- Immune system
- Direct infection of the central nervous system
- Psychiatric and general medical comorbidities
Another study showed a correlation between COVID-19 symptoms and mental health issues. This means that the more and worse someone’s COVID-19 symptoms were, the worse their anxiety could be during and after recovery.
Aside from all this, sudden changes to one’s daily life may also be to blame for worsening Post-COVID anxiety. Some experts have compared the experiences of long COVID patients with those who suffer from chronic illnesses such as ME/CFS encephalomyelitis – chronic fatigue syndrome or dysautonomia.
These illnesses can upend a patient’s life as they know it and lead to significant changes in their ability to work, provide for their family, pay their bills, move around, connect with others, etc. In a sense, long-COVID and similar chronic illnesses become life-altering experiences that may cause patients to grieve their former lives.
Furthermore, COVID-19 survivors are at an increased risk of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – particularly those who experienced life-threatening symptoms, were intubated, or witnessed other patients struggle with and die of the disease.
Finally, long COVID anxiety may be exacerbated by fears of reinfection, rejection, stigmatization, and exclusion from their peers. Post-COVID anxiety may also be related to experiences of repeated dismissal by medical professionals who fail to acknowledge the severity of their symptoms.
How long does Post-COVID anxiety last?
Post-COVID anxiety can last for several months following recovery. There is no definitive timeline for how long post-COVID anxiety stays, but a 2021 study showed that up to a quarter of all participants experience symptoms of anxiety for at least three months after recovering from COVID. In another study, 33 participants exhibited ‘critical’ anxiety levels one year later.
Unfortunately, symptoms can worsen over time if anxiety is left untreated. Therefore, it’s important for those dealing with long COVID to be aware of the symptoms of anxiety, learn how to spot them, and seek treatment early on.
How to deal with anxiety after COVID recovery
There are plenty of helpful strategies for coping with Post-COVID anxiety, such as mindfulness and relaxation techniques, talking through your worries with a friend or therapist, and engaging in regular physical activity.
Here are some of the steps you can take to deal with anxiety after COVID:
Exercise isn’t just good for your physical health; it helps reduce stress and anxiety as well.
If you have ever heard of the term ‘runner’s high’, then you probably have an idea of how staying active can keep anxiety symptoms at bay. Exercise releases endorphins or ‘feel-good’ chemicals that trigger positive feelings in the brain. It also decreases levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. Finally, exercise gives you a sense of accomplishment – a reminder that you are more capable than your anxiety makes you feel. That’s why runners feel so euphoric after training.
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America recommends engaging in a cardio workout three to five times a week for at least 30 minutes.
Meditation has been around for ages, and for good reason.
Research suggests that mindfulness meditation can alter the structure of the brain, particularly in areas involving attention and emotion regulation.
One study found that patients who underwent an intensive eight-week mindfulness meditation program experienced a 20% drop in their anxiety symptoms – roughly the same amount reduced in participants who received a 10 to 20 mg dose of the anxiety drug escitalopram for the same amount of time.
But how does it work? Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a relaxation technique that involves deep breathing, focusing on the breath, and directing one’s attention to a particular body part. The practice helps practitioners to focus on the present rather than the past or the future. It also encourages them to recognize, acknowledge, and let go of negative thoughts.
Limit your caffeine intake
Coffee may give people the boost they need to jumpstart their days, but for those with anxiety, caffeine can worsen symptoms.
A study found that about five cups of coffee can induce panic attacks in a large proportion of patients with panic disorder. Five cups of coffee can also increase the anxiety levels of people who don’t have any existing disorders.
If you insist on having caffeine, limit your intake to one to two cups of coffee a day.
Taking time out of your day to nurture yourself and practise self-care can have very real physical and mental benefits, especially when it comes to anxiety. By taking the time to engage in activities like yoga, journaling, or going for a walk outside, you are providing yourself with an opportunity to check in with yourself and reduce stress hormones that could be causing anxiety. The effects will vary from person to person, but by practising these simple rituals, you could find that your days are calmer and easier than before.
That said, self-care isn’t just about permitting yourself to take a break; it is also about taking control of your emotional well-being and ultimately relieving the strain of anxiety.
Self-care can be split into several different categories, including physical self-care, emotional self-care, and spiritual self-care:
- Physical self-care involves exercising and practising good sleep hygiene. Poor sleep quality is linked to increased stress and anxiety and vice-versa.
- Emotional self-care involves setting boundaries and connecting with loved ones.
- Spiritual self-care involves meditating, attending religious services, and practising gratitude.
Try psychotherapy or join an anxiety support group
Studies have shown that patients with fewer coping mechanisms are more likely to be affected by long COVID anxiety. Seeking professional help gives you the strategies you need to cope with difficult emotions and manage your anxiety when the time comes.
Many people assume that anxiety is just all in the head. But, for most patients, anxiety manifests in a very real, very physical way. Physical symptoms include fatigue, muscle aches, nausea, and digestive issues.
The good thing is that, by fortifying your mind and learning how to respond to external stimuli, you can keep yourself from spiraling and further worsening your symptoms.
If you are not a fan of one-on-one talk therapy, you can also try group therapy. In this setting, you gain a supportive network of people who can empathize with your situation and work with you to find solutions to your problems.
Get a prescription for anxiety medication
Trying anxiety medication might seem scary, but it may ultimately end up providing much-needed relief. Anxiety medication can regulate your moods, reduce intrusive thoughts and worry, and help manage your symptoms so that other forms of therapy have a greater chance of success.
If your anxiety is severely impacting your day-to-day life, don’t hesitate to seek medication as a possible course of action.
Starting your Post-COVID anxiety treatment
The first step towards addressing mental health problems of any kind involves contacting a mental health professional. Your mental health provider will assess the severity of your symptoms and work with you to create a holistic treatment plan. Often, treatment plans involve more than one of the aforementioned strategies.
According to American Psychological Association, there “is no magic treatment, surgery or pill that will instantaneously alleviate your symptoms”. But early intervention can make a world of a difference.
When to seek help
How do you know when it’s time to seek support from a mental health provider? Here are some signs to look out for:
- Your mental health symptoms get in the way of your personal or professional relationships.
- You have trouble sleeping.
- You can’t concentrate on school or work.
- You experience more frequent panic attacks.
- You struggle to enjoy the things you used to love doing.
- You struggle with feelings of self-loathing, self-doubt, and worthlessness.
- You begin isolating yourself from friends and family members.
- You have thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
The bottom line
People who have dealt with COVID-19, whether through infection or caring for someone who has been infected, are at an increased risk for developing anxiety. This anxiety can bring about feelings of distress, restlessness, and irritability, as well as a spate of physical symptoms. At its worst, anxiety can affect your ability to work and maintain relationships with your loved ones.
The good news is that anxiety is treatable. With a solid support system, good habits, and the help of mental health professionals, you can manage your Post-COVID anxiety and get back to living your life.
If you can’t get a hold of a support system that will help you get through your Post-COVID anxiety, we are here to help. Reach out to us and we will encourage you to join to our proven effective support programs for long COVID sufferers.