Long Covid

What is Long Covid?

According to a recent study 7-10% of individuals who contracted the Covid virus report continuing health problems up to and beyond two years after becoming ill. In the UK a 2024 House of Commons report concludes that 1.9 million people currently have Long Covid. A common, but debatable, view is that the Covid (SARS) virus causes long-term complications in which cytokines are released. Cytokines are immune system messengers which help to control inflammation. However, cytokines can also be released when we are stressed or anxious. It may be that it is not the SARS virus that causes ‘Long Covid’ but the stress of illness. 

The picture is complicated by the so far uncharted long-term effects of the Covid vaccines. There is emerging evidence that these vaccines can result in cardiac, neurological and pulmonary damage for a percentage of people. However this is a separate issue from the problems caused by Covid-19 itself. 

Symptoms of Long Covid

The most commonly reported symptoms are fatigue, poor concentration (‘brain fog’), muscle ache, dizziness and shortness of breath. However, these symptoms are very similar to those reported for ME/CFS or, as I prefer to call it Bodily Distress Syndrome. A full explanation of the syndrome and its causes and treatment is given in my book on Reverse Therapy.

It is extremely unusual for a respiratory virus to cause long-term symptoms. For example, the flu virus nearly always clears up within six weeks. It has yet to be demonstrated that Covid-19 by itself creates long-term health problems, except in a small percentage of cases that require hospitalisation.

What is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety is based on two experiential factors:

  1. That the presence of symptoms like fatigue, loss of concentration and muscle ache are disturbing and upsetting.
  2. The conviction that such symptoms are due to the after effects of a malignant virus, and that no cure is available.

Together, these experiences give rise to a stream of anxious thoughts. 

An anxiety disorder is generated and maintained by such thoughts. The most common being catastrophic judgments about what might happen next. Applied to illness such frightening thoughts might include:

  • Thoughts that I am seriously ill
  • That I may never recover
  • That things are getting worse
  • That I cannot work any more
  • That illness is ruining my life
  • That I cannot cope
  • That my situation is hopeless.

Given that Covid-19 resulted in a worldwide lockdown, and the fact that alarming stories about it continue to appear in the news every day it is not surprising that many sufferers develop health anxiety over this particular virus. It is in fact common for people who suspect they may have Long Covid to be preoccupied with press articles on the subject.

For some individuals the experience of illness may result in post-traumatic stress disorder. The shock of contracting what may be a malign and destructive virus can be traumatic for some. Thus leading to horror and despair. If this is the case then specialist therapeutic interventions for PTSD may be required.

Anxiety and trauma may be triggered by confusion over the lack of medical treatment. Since no clear-cut treatment for ‘Long Covid’ is available this can trigger more catastrophic thoughts.

Finally, health anxiety is marked by scanning behaviour. In which sufferers from anxiety develop a daily habit of checking for symptoms. Unfortunately, in health anxiety scanning may lead to an expansion in symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog as anxiety increases.

Treatment for Long Covid

Anyone suffering from a post-viral disorder should seek the best available medical advice. However, if the problem has persisted for more than three months and anxiety or trauma are present it is advisable to seek the help of a therapist. This is especially true if you have a prior history of anxiety.

Anxious thoughts can be addressed through either Cognitive-Behaviour therapy (CBT) or Acceptance & Commitment therapy (ACT).

For specific advice on defusing from anxious thoughts see my article here. Please also see the Podcast page for further assistance.

Image by sarahgolfart@gmail.com

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