As the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the world, doctors and researchers have found their patients experiencing unusual physical feelings mimicking COVID-19 symptoms. Your body has its own stress alarm system. Physical symptoms, such as tingles, upset stomach, difficulty breathing, and hair loss, can be signs of stress. Unfortunately, these symptoms can look quite similar to coronavirus symptoms, creating more stress and perpetuating the cycle.
It can be incredibly alarming for “somebody who doesn’t typically have headaches or doesn’t have chest pains,” said Dr. Goodykoontz, assistant professor and section chief of psychiatry for West Virginia University Medicine.
Goodykoontz has seen just about everything since the COVID-19 outbreak started. And even if it’s psychosomatic, that doesn’t mean the pain doesn’t exist: “These things are real.”
“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 On Demand 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 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.
NOTE: This information is not an encouragement to ignore your health. If you think you are experiencing an emergency, especially if the symptoms are new and severe, first seek medical aid.
Irregular blood flow
A pandemic is certainly a traumatic event and can have serious physical effects on your body. “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, Mississippi.
When experiencing stress, our bodies produce and release epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. “Our bodies take that and shunt 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 and this can be felt in waves of tingles. Some say that they feel as if they are “floating.” 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. This is similar to when your foot or hand “falls asleep” and you feel uncomfortable tingles.
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.”
Although shortness of breath is often a symptom of anxiety, and unfortunately alsoCOVID-19, these breathing difficulties are experienced very differently.
Symptoms of anxiety can also include: feelings of panic and fear, obsessive thoughts, excessive sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, and dizziness.
Symptoms of coronavirus include: fever, dry cough, aches and pains, nasal congestion, sore throat, or diarrhea – the major distinctions in this case being fever and dry cough.
A person who is experiencing shortness of breath due to anxiety may also only experience it in intervals lasting 10 to 30 minutes at a time and symptoms will likely come and go throughout the day. On the other hand, a person with coronavirus who is having difficulty breathing will experience it for a longer period of time, along with flu-like symptoms.
If you find that you are experiencing anxiety, here are some things that you can do to help ease the symptoms that you may be feeling:
- Take slow deep breaths.
- Go for a walk or try a stretching exercise.
- Limit the amount of news you watch and read.
- Watch a funny video or movie.
- Read a book or find a hobby you enjoy.
“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 has seen parallels between those findings and what he’s seeing currently in the pandemic.
In addition to stress induced from the pandemic, changes in diet and exercise are causing gastrointestinal problems. Dr. Riddle added, “Especially for people who are suddenly working from home.”
Any change 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.
Hand-washing and stress is leading to irritation of the skin. People who previously had skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis, and those with chronic acne are 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, Farah said.
A common cause of dermatitis is frequent handwashing, which everyone is advised to do to prevent contracting COVID-19. The skin forms a rash under rings (like a wedding ring) on your fingers, because the skin can remain wet after washing. The ring might not be removed during drying for the skin underneath it to adequately dry. These rashes can be itchy and annoying, but more seriously, they 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 (common in women after they give birth).
“People feel their hair is a reflection of their health, which it can be,” she said. Considering this pandemic has created a sense of chaos and uncertainty, this is a very common way your body tells you that it is undergoing immense amounts of stress.
Talk to your doctor
If you can’t figure out whether what you’re experiencing is caused by stress or something else, a physician can help.
Many doctors 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, such as suggesting mental health remedies like exercise, meditation, or therapy.