Itches, acne and insomnia: How stressing over coronavirus affects your body


Millions of Canadians have been at home for weeks now, practising physical distancing in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Stress, anxiety and uncertainty are all common feelings during times like this — ones that can manifest in your body in strange ways.

If you’ve experienced symptoms like severe eczema flare-ups or irregular menstruation, you’re not alone. Stress can take a massive toll on your body in unpredictable ways.

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“In the stress field, we talk about stress getting under our skin,” said Kate Harkness, health psychology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“Stress can lead to a whole cascade of bodily reactions that can cause symptoms that seem strange.”

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Technically, said Harkness, the body is actually doing what it’s supposed to be doing — the system is just a bit outdated.

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Mothers with cancer facing added stress during pandemic

The evolution of stress

“It’s preparing us to deal with this stressful situation, but the way that the body was designed to do that was for very short-lived stressful events,” she said.

In the past, humans had very different stressors — like the threat of being eaten by a larger predator — and these inform our bodily reactions today.

“Things we might have encountered way back in our evolutionary heritage, like running away from a lion, [would have been] something really dangerous that’s over in five minutes,” Harkness said.

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“The problem with COVID-19 is that it’s not an acute stressor. It’s something that’s lingering, day after day.”

The pandemic has been in full swing for weeks now, and there’s no end in sight, which means our bodies could be in a steady state of stress for much longer.

“[COVID-19] has two characteristics that are the worst for stress: it’s uncontrollable and it’s unpredictable,” Harkness said.

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Having a baby during the coronavirus pandemic

There is a difference between stress and anxiety, said Jennifer Mills, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto.

“Stress is any situation that is demanding on the person in the sense that it requires them to increase the resources they use to cope or adapt,” Mills said.

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Stressful situations can actually be happy or exciting, too. For example, getting married, having a baby or moving houses.

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“They demand a lot of us, but you don’t necessarily have to feel negative emotions,” Mills said.

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Anxiety, on the other hand, is similar to fear — it’s a “fear-based emotional response.”

“Where stress and anxiety collide (like during a pandemic) is where people feel like they aren’t going to be able to cope,” Mills said. “That’s when stress can become anxiety, and it can come along with a negative thought pattern.”

With this negative thought pattern lingering in the background every day, the body begins to produce inflammation as a means to protect us. Unfortunately, this can cause some uncomfortable side effects.

Side effects

“[The body] releases chemicals in the body that lead to inflammation, which is great when you need to repair wounds that you might have encountered by that lion, but not so great when you’re just sitting around at home,” Harkness said.

The inflammation is what leads to eczema flare-ups, psoriasis, increased cortisol levels, excess oil production and more.

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If you find that you’re struggling with acne more during this time than normal, it’s likely thanks to stress.

Higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, are present in the body right now, which can stimulate glands to produce more oil and cause skin problems.

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Stress can also inhibit the reproductive system, Harkness said.

Managing your stress levels during the COVID-19 outbreak

Managing your stress levels during the COVID-19 outbreak

“When you’re running away from the lion, that’s not when you want to ovulate, obviously,” she said. “The body is really good at [picking up on these threats] and protecting us.

“You don’t want to bring more people into the world when the world isn’t a very great place.”

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If you’re a person who menstruates, you may experience late or irregular periods, or no periods at all, for as long as the stress remains in your body.

Your subconscious

It’s possible that you may not feel stressed or anxious and still experience these side effects.

“It might not be something that you’re consciously aware of, but it’s there in the background doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” Harkness said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, you may have experienced more acute stress reactions — like panic attacks, for example.

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As time goes on, these tend to “calm down” in favour of more intensive bodily reactions happening in the background.

In other words, you may not know you’re stressed — but your body does.

A good example of a situation that might cause underlying stress is video call meetings for work, Mills said.

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Mental health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mental health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Video meetings can be stressful because it’s something we’re not used to doing,” she said.

“It requires a different kind of attention … and it requires you to adapt and be flexible to something that isn’t really under your control.”

That stress can “seep into” your body and cause a whole cascade of chemicals.

How to de-stress

Social support at a time like this is key to managing your stress and anxiety.

“Even though we need to physically distance from people doesn’t mean we need to isolate ourselves,” Harkness said.

Video and phone calls, text messaging and chatting with the people you’re in isolation with will help you confront your feelings head-on.

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“Talking about it and sharing it with somebody else does a lot to lift the stress from the body and get it outside the body,” Harkness said. “Share that stress.”

Katy Kamkar, a registered psychologist based in Toronto, agrees — using technology to stay socially connected is very effective at staving off stress and anxiety. She also recommends finding a routine that works for you.

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“Create your own individualized self-care approach,” Kamkar said.

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“Find what time you need to wake up, exercises that work for you, try to keep a healthy diet … and engage in meaningful projects.”

During this time, avoid negative self-talk. Be proud of yourself for whatever you accomplish each day and try not to compare yourself to others.

“Engage in self-compassion, self-kindness … practise gratitude,” Kamkar said. “Be able to evaluate and revise your expectations and interpretations, especially when outcomes or goals change.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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