Combating the mental and physical fallout of COVID-19

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It has been almost four months since most of the United States of America went on lockdown because of the corona virus pandemic. Watching other countries go through dealing with multiple people contracting the virus, being hospitalized and ventilated and dying, I believe that as Americans we felt that some combination of our non-European location and healthcare system would make us either immune to the virus, or certainly that it would have less devastating effects on us. 

Unfortunately, as we watched the infection rates and death tolls rise, in particular in New York, it became crystal clear that we were no different from the rest of the world and this virus was our enemy too. 

I recall in March attempting to prepare my staff for the change in work flow assuming it would be three months of some combination of shutdown and intense social distancing, and as well that many persons would become infected until we developed a vaccine. Mentally we were all making the most of extra time to do office and personal projects and simply take a forced vacation. 

As the days turned into weeks turned into months, however, the anxiety and stress level increased. While stress is expected with the duration of any chronic illness, this pandemic and the seemingly random nature of who will succumb to it has been stressful on a level that no one could have prepared for.

Initially it was the elderly or people with comorbidities who often did not fare well. While this was unfortunate, it was explainable and accepted with a sigh of relief with increased attempts to isolate those persons. 

And then along came healthy persons with no apparent comorbidities, children, young adults not only getting the virus but also dying! It suddenly became clear that anyone could get the coronavirus and die from it. The uncertainty surrounding who is at risk for doing poorly with COVID-19 is probably the factor that is most responsible for the astronomical increase in physical and mental stress.

Signs of physical and mental stress

Insomnia: Difficulty getting to and staying asleep, with this often being secondary to worry regarding contracting the illness in oneself or family members, worrying about the severity of illness one might face if they did contract the virus, social isolation from friends and family, and as well the financial burden of those furloughed or laid off.

Hair thinning: This comes with increased cortisol levels, oxidative stress, and the whole body’s sympathetic flight or fight response being constantly elevated and releasing many other hormones that negatively impacts one’s health.

Weight gain and/or loss: Some people will eat when under stress, while others become depressed and stop eating and thereby lose weight.

Elevated blood pressures: The added stress of everything that comes with a pandemic, from the illness itself to social isolation and financial distress, increases a person’s blood pressure.

Gastric ulcers: This, like many of the other illnesses, is a compilation of poor sleep, increased cortisol from stress and worry, as well as oftentimes change in one’s routine of sleep-wake cycle.

Anxiety, depression, PTSD: The psychological toll of COVID-19 is amplified by the fact that no one is immune to it, and therefore even counselors are themselves having to deal with the mental impact of the pandemic. Police officers and frontline workers are in particular at increased risk because of their role in needing to help so many when they are succumbing to the illness.

Combatting the fallout

So what can you and I do to combat some of the physical and mental fallout from the coronavirus?

Stay flexible. Mentally prepare yourself for the fact that healthcare providers and government officials do not have a crystal ball and hopefully will be fluid in making recommendations and changes as needed once relatively objective information is available.

Keep a routine. Although you may not need to get up for work or have scheduled tasks, studies in the past have shown that maintaining a consistent sleep-wake cycle not only improves sleep quality but also lessen stress.

Read a book. A book not only helps with mental clarity but it also transports you to another place and time and can help decrease the stress of today’s reality.

Enjoy nature. Each day finds something in nature to focus on and enjoy! That may mean going for a walk or watching the sunrise or sunset.

Sleep. There are fewer deadlines, less driving, less socializing, so why not take this opportunity to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each day? Getting good sleep will help to not only improve your energy during the daytime, but will also help decrease the risk of some of your comorbidities like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart attacks.

Exercise. Although the fitness centers have been closed, there is truly not an excuse for anyone who ever wanted to get started with a workout program. Multiple facilities are offering often-free classes online, and when all else fails get outside for a walk.  

Garden. Gardening and being able to see the growth of your plants, and in particular harvesting the bounty from your vegetable garden, for example, helps to lower the stress hormones and is cost-saving both personally and environmentally.

Get your to-do list done. This may involve tackling one room of your house every day, week or month, but simply take the time to get started and not procrastinate any longer.

 There are countless other possibilities. Each day, call someone you have not spoken to in

some time. Take online classes. Learn to sew, knit, or do woodwork.

Dr. Inel Rosario is a board certified ENT and sleep physician practicing at Andros ENT & Sleep Center in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. She has many times been recognized as a Top Doctor and Best Doctor in various Minnesota magazines and can be reached at drrosario@androsent-sleep.com or 651-888-7800.  

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