The Pandemic Is Stressing Your Body in New Ways

By | June 4, 2020

If you are feeling a bit off in ways you are pretty sure are not a result of having Covid-19, you are not alone. That’s because living during a pandemic is doing a number to your body.

Dr. Toni Goodykoontz, assistant professor and section chief of psychiatry for WVU Medicine, has seen just about everything since the Covid-19 outbreak started.

“Adults complain of things like headaches, fatigue, just a general feeling of unwellness,” Dr. Goodykoontz said. “Part of it is patients will start to imagine that they may have the virus, but most don’t recognize that this is all a manifestation of the fact that they are so overwhelmed and stressed by what’s going on.”

Dr. Krisda Chaiyachati, medical director of Penn Medicine OnDemand Virtual Care, said that he’s seen an increase in chest pains, tingling feelings and stomach problems. Some of those bodily disturbances could be psychosomatic, but since information about how Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, affects the body is still incomplete, it’s not irresponsible for patients to worry that the virus might be behind what they’re experiencing. “What most of us are figuring out with the pandemic is trying to disentangle what is or not” the coronavirus, Dr. Chaiyachati said.

These unusual physical feelings can also be incredibly alarming for “somebody who doesn’t typically have headaches or doesn’t have chest pains,” Dr. Goodykoontz said. And even if it’s psychosomatic, that doesn’t mean the pain doesn’t exist: “These things are real.”

Remember, if you think you are having an emergency, especially if the symptoms are new and severe, and something you’ve never had, first seek medical aid.

But if those criteria don’t apply, understanding how stress and lifestyle changes are impacting your body can also help:

While traumatic events can have serious physical effects on your body, so can ever-present stressors. “When we start feeling stressed or feeling anxiety, it sends off chemicals and hormones in our bodies,” said Dr. Katherine Pannel, an osteopathic psychiatrist and medical director for Right Track Medical Group in Oxford, Miss.

When stressed, your body produces and releases epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. “Our bodies take that and shunts all the blood in our bodies toward our main, vital organs that we need to survive, like the brain and the heart,” Dr. Pannel said.

All of the blood ends up rushing away from our extremities. While tingling fingertips can be signs of a stroke — which some Covid-19 patients have suffered — the tingling can also signal that blood is flowing normally again after being pulled away. The same thing happens when your foot or hand “falls asleep” because you sat or slept at a weird angle.

This shunted blood flow may also be responsible for erectile dysfunction or, more likely, it is caused by “psychological factors,” Dr. Pannel said. “The mind needs to send messages to the penis to get an erection,” she said. When we’re stressed, the feelings of pleasure and desire may also be shut off. “If we’re anxious and stressed, that’s just not there.”

“Think about when you had a big test,” Dr. Goodykoontz said. “You might feel sick to your stomach. You might feel sweaty and tingly. Our bodies are very in tune with our minds when stressed,” she said.

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In 2013, researchers from Singapore, the United States and Switzerland studied 37 men undergoing six weeks of combat training for the Singapore Armed Forces, and found that the training produced high levels of stress, anxiety, depression — and gastrointestinal problems.

Dr. Mark S. Riddle, a doctor of public health and associate dean of clinical research at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine sees parallels between those findings and what he’s seeing right now: persistent stress is mucking up people’s plumbing.

Dr. Riddle added that, especially for people who are suddenly working from home, it’s also likely that changes in diet and exercise are causing gastrointestinal problems. Any changes in what you eat can lead to complications in how you digest it, including nausea, cramps and diarrhea. And if you’re exercising less, it means your bowels are not moving as they normally would, which can lead to constipation.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 2, 2020

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $ 40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $ 100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

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Because the symptoms are the same, the best way to tell if your stomach troubles are being caused by stress or a change in diet and exercise is to either call a doctor or review any changes you’ve made to both. And remember that even good changes to your diet, like eating a lot more fruits and vegetables, can lead to digestive changes too.

People who previously had skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis, and those with chronic acne are also experiencing flare-ups right now, said Dr. Ronda S. Farah, assistant professor in dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. This is most likely caused by hormonal changes prompted in our bodies from stress.

But those who don’t normally suffer from these conditions are also developing rashes. It’s a form of eczema called dermatitis, which isn’t necessarily caused by genetics but outside factors, she said.

The skin under your rings is especially prone, Dr. Farah said, because that skin can get wet during washing, but the ring might not be removed during drying for the skin underneath it to be dried off. These rashes can be itchy and annoying, but can also leave gaps in the skin that become prone to infection.

Dr. Farah is also seeing more cases of telogen effluvium, which is hair loss commonly associated with a stressful or traumatic event (and common in women after they give birth). “People feel their hair is a reflection of their health, which it can be,” she said.

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If you can’t figure out whether what you’re experiencing is caused by stress or something else, a physician can help. (Many are available via telemedicine if you don’t want to risk going into a doctor’s office or hospital, or are concerned your symptoms might be the coronavirus.) A physician can also guide you on what to do to help cope with stress if they feel these new symptoms are stress-related — remedies like exercise, meditation or therapy.