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:
Your blood flow may be changing
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.”
Your gut isn’t working quite right
“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.
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.
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.
Hand-washing and stress is leading to unhappy skin
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.
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.