How to Tell if Your Anxiety Symptoms Are Actually a Sign of COVID-19, According to Experts

COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high and there’s less daylight to enjoy as winter approaches, so…it’s safe to assume your anxiety is probably at an all-time high right now—and you’re not alone. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased “considerably” among American adults during the pandemic.

Naturally, people are using Twitter to cope and share their personal experiences. “Playing my favorite game: Am I having anxiety or COVID or anxiety about having COVID?” one person wrote.

“I can understand the confusion,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Anxiety can feel a lot like the symptoms of COVID-19, which unfortunately makes the anxiety feel worse, feeding a vicious cycle. So how can you figure out what’s going on with your body, especially if the symptoms are a bit new to you? We asked doctors to explain the key differences between the signs of COVID-19 and anxiety, plus when to seek help.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

According to the CDC, these are the main symptoms of COVID-19 to have on your radar.

While these are the common signs of the novel coronavirus, the CDC notes that this list is not all encompassing. For instance, COVID-19 has also been associated with chest pain, pink eye, and skin rashes.

What are the general symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety can show up in a lot of different ways, but these are the major symptoms to look out for, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA):

Some symptoms of a panic attack, which is sudden attacks of anxiety and overwhelming fear that last for several minutes, can also overlap with COVID-19. Per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of a panic attack may include:

How to tell the difference between COVID-19 and anxiety

There is clearly some overlap in symptoms, particularly with breathing rapidly or shortness of breath, feeling weak or tired, and gastrointestinal issues. Plus, dealing with uncomfortable coronavirus symptoms can also spur symptoms associated with anxiety, like feeling nervous or having trouble sleeping.

But there are a few key signs of COVID-19 that won’t surface during a general bout of anxiety, including fever, new loss of taste or small, cough, sore throat, or a runny nose, says Dr. Schaffner. He does stress that “the rapid breathing and shortness of breath can cause confusion.”

One clue that your shortness of breath may be due to COVID-19 instead of anxiety? It gets worse when you exert yourself, says Iahn Gonsenhauser, M.D., internist and chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “As you increase your activity, you find your shortness of breath worsens and you have a hard time doing things that are typically easy for you, like walking up a flight of stairs,” he says. “Generally, that’s not the case with anxiety-related shortness of breath.”

Even during a panic attack, you can force yourself to breathe, even if it feels impossible for a bit. With COVID-19, difficulty breathing is out of your control.

Other symptoms of general anxiety or a panic attack, like chest pain, a racing heart, and dizziness are usually short-lived, and often alleviate after 15 to 20 minutes, says Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. On the flip side, coronavirus symptoms tend to linger for days to weeks, Dr. Gonsenhauser says.

What can I do to try and calm my anxiety?

Try these tricks to see if your symptoms could be rooted in anxiety:

When should I see a doctor about my symptoms?

If the methods above don’t seem to help reduce your increased heart rate, even out your breathing, or improve your feelings of being unwell, it’s time to call your doctor for further evaluation. You should also reach out about getting tested if you experience any other telltale symptoms related to COVID-19, like a fever, cough, or loss of taste and smell.

If you do test positive for the coronavirus, you’ll be asked to go into isolation and stay there until 10 days have passed since you originally started showing symptoms, Dr. Schaffner says. Most people recover at home with plenty of rest, fluids, and fever-reducing meds.

If you found the exercises above did help, but you still feel like you’re not quite yourself or your symptoms keep interfering with your daily life, Dr. Saltz recommends reaching out to a mental health professional. They’ll likely recommend starting therapy or anxiety-reducing medication if needed.

Not sure where to find a therapist? Click here.

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