As we move into flu season and COVID-19 cases continue to increase, it’s inevitable for anxiety to creep in. While the concern is completely understandable, you may be surprised by the side effects your body goes through. Living in a state of fear can have a long-term impact on your health. It’s important to be aware of the impact that COVID-19 anxiety has on your well being.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise and countries returning to lockdowns, many people are beginning to experience anxiety again. This fear is a basic survival mechanism that signals our body to respond to the perceived threat with either a fight or flight response. This response is vital to survival in a multitude of situations. However, if there is not an immediate threat in front of us and we’re unable to overcome the emotion, that feeling of fear will persist, including our bodies’ reaction to it.
When we experience fear, our body goes through multiple physiological changes to prepare us to fight or flee. You’ll notice your heart rate will increase, breathing will quicken, and your muscles will tighten. The adrenal gland also facilitates a chemical change. Hormones such as cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and adrenaline are released to increase your strength and mobility. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin help speed up mental processing. These chemical changes are so powerful that people have been able to lift cars to rescue someone trapped after an accident. While these increases are generally safe, being exposed to them for extended periods of time can have a devastating effect on your long-term health.
weakened immune system
When experiencing fear or stress, levels of cortisol increase, which also causes a decrease of lymphocytes throughout the body and compromises our immune system. Lymphocytes are white blood cells and also one of the body’s main types of immune cells. There are two different types of lymphocytes. The first is partly composed of B-cells, which release antibodies to fight invading bacteria and viruses outside the cell. On the other hand, the T-cell type of lymphocytes targets invaders within cells. Due to the decrease in lymphocytes, people suffering from chronic stress or fear will find themselves more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Therefore, this impact of COVID-19 anxiety causes us to be more susceptible to catching it.
The amygdala region of our brain gets flooded with hormones when we experience fear. The brain most readily stores experiences that are intense. Due to the influx of hormones and the emotion of fear, these memories are processed as a vital learning experience. The brain will then be constantly subconsciously surveying our environment for similar factors that caused us danger before. This impairs the formation of long-term memories and can cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. By having our brain subconsciously looking for red flags, it becomes more difficult to regulate fear. This is known as the ‘amygdala hijack‘. For someone in chronic fear, the world looks terrifying and their memories affirm that.
As a result of long-term adrenaline exposure, the cardiovascular system suffers damage over time. This is typically in the form of tissue damage and narrowing of blood vessels, which result in increased blood pressure. People who suffer from heart disease are the most susceptible. Those already suffering can instantly experience a fatal arrhythmia, a condition where the heart beats out of rhythm and becomes unable to maintain circulation. Under extreme stress, individuals may develop Broken Heart Syndrome, or Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, and die from an abrupt weakening of the heart and diminished capacity to pump blood. Cardiovascular damage can even happen to those who are not used to exercising and suddenly attempt to overexert themselves. Therefore, those who are healthy and fit are better able to handle long-term exposure to stress . However, their cardiovascular systems are still being strained.
Obviously, no one wants to be afraid all the time, however, it’s easy to find yourself stuck in that state if you consistently focus on it. While coronavirus is still a concern, it’s important to shift your focus to more positive things. Knowing the impact COVID-19 anxiety has on your health can help you be mindful of how stress affects your body. Rather than living in fear, focus on following safety protocols, being mindful, and taking care of yourself.