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Sleepless nights, hair loss and cracked teeth: Pandemic stress takes its toll

By Aneri Pattani, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

In late March, shortly after New York state closed nonessential businesses and asked people to stay home, Ashley Laderer began waking each morning with a throbbing headache.

"The pressure was so intense it felt like my head was going to explode," recalled the 27-year-old freelance writer from Long Island.

She tried spending less time on the computer and taking over-the-counter pain medication, but the pounding kept breaking through - a constant drumbeat to accompany her equally incessant worries about COVID-19.

"Every day I lived in fear that I was going to get it and I was going to infect my whole family," she said.

After a month and a half, Laderer decided to visit a neurologist, who ordered an MRI. But the doctor found no physical cause. The scan was clear.

Then he asked: Are you under a lot of stress?

 

Throughout the pandemic, people who never had the coronavirus have been reporting a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms: excruciating headaches, episodes of hair loss, upset stomach for weeks on end, sudden outbreaks of shingles and flare-ups of autoimmune disorders. The disparate symptoms, often in otherwise healthy individuals, have puzzled doctors and patients alike, sometimes resulting in a series of visits to specialists with few answers. But it turns out there's a common thread among many of these conditions, one that has been months in the making: chronic stress.

Although people often underestimate the influence of the mind on the body, a growing catalog of research shows that high levels of stress over an extended time can drastically alter physical function and affect nearly every organ system.

Now, at least eight months into the pandemic, alongside a divisive election cycle and racial unrest, those effects are showing up in a variety of symptoms.

"The mental health component of COVID is starting to come like a tsunami," said Dr. Jennifer Love, a California-based psychiatrist and co-author of an upcoming book on how to heal from chronic stress.

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