Long COVID Symptoms, Depression, and Help
Have the aftereffects of COVID-19 left you with depression, anxiety, fatigue, or sleep and concentration problems? Here’s how to recognize long-haul COVID symptoms and get the help you need.
Have the aftereffects of COVID-19 left you with depression, anxiety, fatigue, or sleep and concentration problems? Here’s how to recognize long-haul COVID symptoms and get the help you need.
Long COVID is a condition where the effects of COVID-19 linger for weeks or months after the initial illness, even when the virus is no longer detected in the body. While most people who contract coronavirus recover within a few weeks, others experience long-term symptoms that include fatigue, respiratory problems (such as shortness of breath), and psychological issues like depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and “brain fog”.
Otherwise known as post-COVID-19 syndrome, long-tail COVID, or long-haul COVID, the effects can impact your ability to work, study, manage your finances, take part in social activities, or make decisions. Even light physical activities, such as housework, driving, or making a phone call can leave you feeling exhausted and aching.
You may be unusually forgetful, find it difficult to concentrate on simple tasks, or feel like you’re unable to think straight. Some people with long COVID feel like their head is clouded or in a fog, making it difficult to do math calculations, for example, or find the right word to say. As a “long hauler”, you may also suffer changes in your mood, most commonly exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Of course, because it’s such a new virus, much remains unclear about the lasting effects of COVID-19, including why some people are affected by long COVID, what exactly causes the symptoms, or how long they’re likely to last.
Different studies have varied wildly in their results, but a recent study estimates that about 30 percent of patients who had acute COVID-19 may be affected by lingering symptoms such as depression, fatigue, and sleep problems. Even those who weren’t hospitalized and only experienced mild coronavirus symptoms may still experience long COVID.
Perhaps the most startling research has suggested that up to one third of COVID-19 survivors are likely to suffer neurological or mental health problems within six months, ranging from mood disorders to dementia or stroke.
People who are unvaccinated may be at increased risk for developing long COVID. Those with preexisting medical conditions, or who were hospitalized from COVID-19, are more likely to develop psychiatric or neurological symptoms.
If you’ve had and recovered from COVID-19, though, try not to let the numbers alarm you. Many long COVID symptoms are hard to quantify. It’s also common for long-term health effects such as fatigue, anxiety, and PTSD to follow treatment for any life-threatening illness, especially if it involves hospitalization.
Whether your symptoms are directly linked to the virus or a post-viral syndrome, it doesn’t mean that your suffering is any less real or that you’re powerless to improve how you feel. While there’s still much we don’t know about long COVID, there are steps you can take to ease your symptoms, regain your health, and support your mood.
Long COVID is generally defined as the conditions that continue or arise after an acute COVID-19 infection. Some medical authorities and researchers define it as extending a few weeks after recovery, others several months. And while there are also no established diagnostic criteria, the most common symptoms reported include:
The nature and extent of symptoms can vary greatly from one person to another. Symptoms can also often fluctuate, so you may feel more fatigued one day than the next, for example, find that difficult emotions ebb and flow, or feel less mentally sharp on certain days. You may also face a lack of understanding from others at home or work who feel that you should have recovered by now or even accuse you of malingering. If you’re unable to work, the added stress and worry of losing your income can make your symptoms even worse.
Less commonly, some people recovering from COVID-19 have serious long-term complications affecting the function of their lungs, kidneys, heart, or brain. Others report a sensitivity to light and sounds, excessive bruising, or numbed limbs. Experiencing such disturbing symptoms can take a further toll on your mental health and well-being.
Post-viral conditions are not unusual; other viral infections can also have long-lasting effects. Meningitis and glandular fever, for example, can trigger chronic fatigue syndrome. The 1918 flu pandemic was linked to cases of encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), while the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) left some patients suffering flu-like symptoms similar to those of long-haul COVID.
While we don’t yet know why some people suffer from long COVID and others don’t, contributing factors could include:
At the present time, there is no established treatment aimed specifically at long COVID. There is also no clear consensus whether Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir and ritonavir), the primary treatment for COVID-19, is effective for long COVID. While this uncertainty can be frustrating, research is ongoing to further determine which drugs may be helpful.
Since long COVID may be caused by increased inflammation, low-dose naltrexone, a medication that targets inflammation in other conditions associated with chronic fatigue, is currently being studied in clinical trials as a possible treatment. Another anti-inflammatory drug, aripiprazole, is also being investigated. However, it will take time to determine its safety and effectiveness for people with long COVID.
Since the symptoms and impact of long COVID can vary so much from patient to patient, it’s important to tailor your coping strategies to your specific symptoms. Physical problems such as shortness of breath, fever, and pain may leave you feeling drained of energy, mentally exhausted, and lead to a depressed mood, all of which require different coping skills.
While it can feel overwhelming, there are steps you can take to care for your overall health and ease your distress at this difficult time.
Seek medical help immediately if you experience chest pain, trouble breathing, a profound change in weight, or are unable to stay awake, eat, or drink. Your doctor may also be able to help relieve physical symptoms and rule out any serious complications or underlying causes.
Get vaccinated. Studies indicate there is about a 30% reduction in the risk of long COVID if you are vaccinated. While research continues to determine whether vaccines can also reduce the severity of long COVID symptoms, one recent study showed that receiving a vaccine after long COVID was linked to fewer symptoms, less inflammation, and a greater sense of well-being.
Continue to practice caution to avoid reinfection. Regardless of how severe your infection is, there is always a risk of having longer-term symptoms each time you have COVID. Therefore, it’s important to avoid reinfection. That could mean wearing a protective mask if you’re out in public, avoiding non-essential travel, or using a hand sanitizer.
Eat a healthy diet. The food you eat can impact both your mood and your energy levels. Aim to eat a balanced, nutritious diet rich in fruit and vegetables. If your physical symptoms leave you feeling nauseous, try eating little and often and focusing on starchy foods. If you’re too fatigued to shop and prepare your own meals, ask a loved one to help, order groceries online, or subscribe to a meal kit delivery service.
Try acupuncture. It may help to decrease inflammation and bolster your immune system.
Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake. Both can disrupt your sleep and adversely affect your immune system. Caffeine may give you a short-term boost but it can lead to a painful crash in energy later.
Quit smoking. Nicotine in tobacco increases your heart rate and blood pressure, irritates your respiratory system, and reduces lung function, all of which will exacerbate symptoms of long COVID. While quitting can be tough, your circulation and breathing will improve very quickly.
Find support. This is a time when you need the help and support of others the most. But feeling persistently fatigued and in pain can make it difficult to reach out and even cause you to withdraw. Some people may find it hard to understand why your symptoms are persisting, making you feel even more isolated and alone. Try contacting an understanding loved one or connecting to an online support group (see the “Get more help” section below).
In addition to taking care of your overall health and wellness, you can use the following tips to cope with some of the most common symptoms of long COVID:
Persistent fatigue is one of the most frequently reported symptoms of long COVID. Different people will experience different types of fatigue and varying levels of exhaustion. You may feel physically worn out just from taking a shower, for example, or struggle with brain fog after reading or socializing.
This unusual drop in your energy levels can leave you feeling stressed and frustrated. While you may feel eager to get back to your daily routine and handle your usual work and family responsibilities, don't try to force your way through the exhaustion or other lingering COVID symptoms. The best way to manage fatigue will vary from person to person, but patience and self-care are crucial.
Rest and relaxation. True relaxation doesn’t mean sitting on the couch watching TV. Rather, it means activating your body’s natural relaxation response, a state of deep rest that lowers your heart rate, reduces your blood pressure, and relieves stress and anxiety. You can achieve the relaxation response by regularly practicing a relaxation technique such as meditation, deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation. Schedule regular breaks between activities and practice a different technique until you find the ones that work best for you.
Exercise. If your physical symptoms allow, being active can boost rather than drain your energy. However, even in cases of mild to moderate COVID-19 without hospitalization, experts recommend waiting at least two weeks before resuming exercise. When it comes to long COVID, you may need to be even more patient with yourself, especially if you’re affected by post-exertional malaise (PEM), also known as post-exertional symptom exacerbation (PESE). This is a condition in which your symptoms worsen and health declines if you push yourself. PEM can be frustrating and discouraging, especially if you’re the kind of person who enjoys staying physically active.
There are ways to cope with PEM. You'll need to adopt a strategy called pacing. Pacing involves identifying your unique limits and then carefully balancing periods of rest and exercise to avoid symptom relapses. Be patient and gradually increase your activity levels while watching for negative effects. For example, you might take a short walk one day, and then wait a day or two to see how your body responds. Limits will vary from person to person, so you may want to work with a physical therapist or other health professional to determine what's safest for you.
Avoid too much sensory stimulation. Crowded, noisy places, brightly-lit stores, and playing video games, for example, can quickly drain your energy and exacerbate symptoms such as headache, anxiety, and brain fog. Spend time doing more soothing activities instead, such as chatting with a friend or listening to an audiobook.
When you’re suffering from long COVID, even the gentlest activity can seem exhausting. By making small changes to how you pace, plan, and prioritize your daily tasks, though, you can conserve energy and get more done during the day.
|Pace, Plan, and Prioritize|
|Pace yourself by breaking large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones and building in rests during and between activities. For example, spread household chores throughout the day, taking a break between each one. Sit down while you’re in the shower, brushing your teeth, or doing the dishes. Read or work at the computer for short bursts, taking plenty of rest in between.|
|Plan ways to space out tasks or schedule them for the times of day when you feel more energetic. Go to the grocery store when it’s less crowded, for example. Cook enough food to freeze leftovers to eat when you don’t feel up to cooking, or plan on wearing only clothes that don’t need to be ironed.|
|Prioritize the tasks and activities that are really necessary and look for energy saving alternatives. Online shop to save you going to the store, for example, arrange for a friend to help you pay bills or do any heavy lifting, or put off yardwork until you’re feeling stronger.|
Sleep helps support your immune system, energy levels, and mood, but the quality of your sleep is just as important as the quantity. While sleep problems can be triggered by long COVID, they can also exacerbate other symptoms. Poor quality sleep at night impacts how well you feel during the day, which in turn impacts how well you’re able to sleep at night. Before you know it, you’re trapped in a vicious downward cycle of poor sleep and increasing daytime fatigue.
One 2022 study found that at least 40 percent of people with long COVID experience moderate to severe sleep problems. Some people struggle to get to sleep at night or wake up feeling unrefreshed. Others tend to oversleep, sleeping for more than nine or ten hours at a time. This can lead to daytime tiredness, a lack of energy, and problems concentrating. In many cases, you can get on a better sleep schedule by adopting healthier sleep habits.
Clean up your bedtime habits and sleep environment. Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, avoid alcohol in the evening, and turn off screens at least one hour before bedtime. Try to make your room as comfortable, dark, and quiet as possible.
Adopt a relaxing bedtime ritual. To help you unwind before bed, take a warm bath, play soothing music, or practice a relaxation technique such as meditation, deep breathing, or some yoga stretches.
Use sleep medications with caution. Long COVID symptoms such as pain can interfere with your sleep at night, but many sleep aids or sleeping pills have side effects. Some may aggravate other symptoms, such as daytime fatigue or trouble focusing.
Do a quiet, non-stimulating activity if you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep. Try reading a book or listening to music, for example. Just remember to keep the lights dim and avoid using screens.
If worries about your health or welfare are preventing you from sleeping at night, try making a brief note of your specific fears on paper. Then postpone worrying about them until the morning when you’ll be more rested and better able to work towards a solution.
There are also strategies you can use to deal with uncertainty and learn to face the future with more confidence.
In chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that shares some similarities with long COVID, oversleeping rarely improves symptoms. Rather, sleeping late or napping during the day may interfere with the quality of your sleep at night and preserve the cycle of poor sleep and increasing daytime fatigue.
To help correct oversleeping:
Feelings of hopelessness and despair can seem overwhelming when you’re struggling with a serious health issue. Depression can feel like you’re living your life under a dark cloud and change how you think and function in your daily activities. It can also manifest itself in physical symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain or loss, concentration problems, and unexplained aches and pains.
If the impact of your long COVID has included depression symptoms, you’re not alone. A 2021 study revealed that more than 50 percent of adults reported symptoms of major depression after having COVID-19.
Researchers have found that even a mild COVID-19 infection can affect the brain. This may be down to inflammation created by the virus, resulting in changes in mood, energy, and memory. Other studies suggest that long COVID patients with depression and anxiety may have shrinkage in the limbic area of the brain, which controls emotional responses.
If you’re still feeling exhausted and overwhelmed several weeks after COVID infection, this could be a warning sign of long COVID depression.
When you’re depressed, you may feel slow, sluggish, and physically spent after even the smallest tasks. And the things that can best help to relieve your depression—like getting moving and connecting to others—are often the hardest to do when you feel drained of energy and hope.
However, there are small but positive steps you can take each day to escape the cloud of depression and improve how you feel.
Since physical and mental health are so closely linked, by taking steps to address your symptoms of depression, you may also be able to reduce the debilitating effects of your physical symptoms as well. The most crucial step you can take is to seek help as soon as possible. Depression will not go away on its own, and there’s no shame in asking for help and support.
BetterHelp is an online therapy service that matches you to licensed, accredited therapists who can help with depression, anxiety, relationships, and more. Take the assessment and get matched with a therapist in as little as 48 hours.Take Assessment HelpGuide is user supported. We may earn a commission if you sign up for BetterHelp’s services after clicking through from this site. Learn more
Aside from depression, the most common changes in mood and mental health that accompany long COVID are anxiety, trauma, sleep disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and an increased risk of substance abuse.
Anxiety. When you’re struggling with long-haul COVID, it’s understandable to feel anxious or uncertain about how soon you’ll recover, whether you’ll suffer any long-term complications, or when you’ll be able to fully resume your old life. While constant tension, unease, and worry can wear you down, there are steps you can take to ease your anxiety. Creating a worry period, challenging anxious thoughts, and learning to accept uncertainty can significantly reduce worry and calm your anxious mind.
Depression. Feelings of hopelessness and despair can seem overwhelming when you’re struggling with a serious health issue. Depression can feel like you’re living your life under a dark cloud and change how you think and function in your daily activities. It can also manifest itself in physical symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain or loss, concentration problems, and unexplained aches and pains. But there are ways to cope with depression, improve your mood and physical well-being, and regain your sense of hope.
Trauma. It’s not unusual to experience traumatic stress following a life-threatening illness such as COVID-19, especially if you were hospitalized and received intensive care. Traumatic stress can shatter your sense of security, leaving you feeling physically and mentally drained, overwhelmed by grief, and unable to properly sleep or focus. Often, these symptoms will gradually start to fade as life returns to normal. But if you’re unable to move on, you may need help for PTSD to regain your emotional balance.
Stress. While high stress levels can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, there are plenty of things you can do to lower your stress. While you’re coping with long COVID symptoms, try to cut down on your responsibilities and learn simple but effective stress management techniques to help you feel more calm and focused.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Having constant repetitive thoughts and behaviors can be distressing, particularly when you’re not feeling well. You may be physically tired, but still unable to turn off these racing thoughts and habitual practices. Symptoms of OCD have been reported in 20% of adults one month after being hospitalized for a COVID-19 infection. But there are steps you can take to curtail these triggers and make your life more manageable.
Substance abuse. Having long COVID can cause many different stressors on a daily basis. It may be tempting to turn to drugs or alcohol to help cope with depression, anxiety, or physical discomfort, for example. However, this often creates a downward spiral that only makes COVID symptoms worse. Substance abuse can also interfere with cardiovascular and respiratory systems, which can further prolong recovery from long COVID.Last updated or reviewed on October 25, 2023
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