It’s been known that underlying health conditions like hypertension, obesity and asthma can increase someone’s risk for developing long COVID. But research is now showing that experiencing psychological distress—even before contracting COVID-19—might be a greater risk factor for long COVID.
“Stress causes your body to produce cortisol,” Laurie Boore-Clor, M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. “Cortisol increases your heart rate and blood pressure. It also causes an inflammatory reaction in your body, and chronic inflammation compromises your health.”
While conditions like asthma and hypertension can be pretty well managed with medication, she says, being in a constant state of stress increases the amount of inflammation in your body, making long COVID more likely.
Neurological Symptoms Of Long COVID
Symptoms of long COVID vary widely, from shortness of breath and cough to joint pain, tinnitus and loss of taste and smell. But those with physiological stress may be more likely to experience neurological symptoms of long COVID—such as brain fog, fatigue, attention disorders, depression and headaches—since they already have a neurological vulnerability in the brain.
“Neurological symptoms of long COVID can be especially difficult to treat, which is why it’s important to recognize symptoms of long COVID," says Dr. Boore-Clor. "The sooner you get treatment, the better off you'll be. But recognition is the problem. Most of the people with long COVID don’t have an initial infection that requires hospitalization. And when people first started experiencing symptoms of long COVID, they weren’t believed. Women are more likely to experience symptoms of long COVID than men, and people told them it was in their head; that they were just tired or stressed.”
Ways To Manage Long COVID & Support Your Mental Health
Since March 2020, the number of people who have dealt with mental health issues has skyrocketed. Taking steps to care for your mental health won't only help to reduce your risk of long COVID, but it may also help to reverse symptoms of long COVID. Dr. Boore-Clor recommends:
- Getting enough rest. For adults, that means sleeping between seven to nine hours a night. It’s key for both physical and mental health.
- Exercising daily. Whether you take a brisk walk, go for a jog, or play a sport, exercising can help you regain energy. It’s good for your heart, your brain function, your mood—and the list goes on.
- Eating a well-rounded diet. Ditch processed, sugary and fried foods in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein. It will decrease inflammation and give your body the nutrients it needs to recover.
- Maintaining close social connections. Having a close-knit social circle to rely upon is paramount for your mental health. Sometimes, the instances that you want to be alone are the times you need someone the most.
- Refraining from smoking, drinking and using drugs. Self-medicating with addictive substances can increase your stress, lead to chronic health conditions and negatively impact your mental health.
- Seeking help from a mental health professional. They can determine which type of therapy will be best for you. And if needed, a psychiatrist can prescribe medications to manage conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, brain fog and more. Not sure where to start? Talk to your primary care doctor, who can refer you to a specialist.
Laurie Boore-Clor, M.D., is a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital and Henry Ford Medical Center in Dearborn.