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Luis Angel Diaz, School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra
Do I have symptoms of coronavirus or is it just anxiety?
The cases of anguish and anxiety that are being experienced these days due to the status health alarm due to the coronavirus are becoming more and more common. The atmosphere of social fear, restriction of movement and, in some cases, even loneliness, contribute to increase the anxious symptomatology. Not only patients refer to us in consultations and health psychology centers, but also other health professionals, such as nurses and doctors, who are in direct contact with the population affected by the virus repeat the same scene of confusion: patients who, erroneously, without having fever but with a clear feeling of pressure in the chest and in some cases also sweating, require health care professionals in the fear of COVID-19, consuming human and technical resources now scarce and at the limit of their capacity to function.
According to the advertising made by the Ministry of Health of the Government of Spain, the symptoms of COVID-19 are: fever, cough and shortness of breath. In the case of the information distributed by the World Health Organization, although it focuses on symptoms such as fever, tiredness and dry cough, it is similar in recommending that people with fever, cough and shortness of breath should seek financial aid. This information, as it could not be otherwise, is serious and rigorous and based on scientific evidence.
The problem is that the status we live in can cause symptoms of anxiety and distress, which are very similar in two of the three conditions expressed by the Ministry of Health: difficulty breathing or a feeling of suffocation and the sensation of heat or fever.
Both mechanisms are caused by an activation of the nervous system, specifically the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This mechanism is related to states of emotional alertness, acute stress or hypervigilance and its end product is the hormone cortisol. On occasions of maximum activity, this hormone can cause anxious symptoms, characterized at the emotional level by intense fear, emotional discomfort and anguish, at the intellectual level by an inability to avoid negative ideas or excessive worries such as illness or death, and at the physical level by a rise in blood pressure, accelerated or very marked heart palpitation, difficulty breathing, pressure in the chest or a sensation of excessive heat and sweating. However, although the sensation of heat is evident in the case of anxiety, it is rare that anxiety can increase the body temperature by several Degrees percent, so we could say that a clearly distinctive fact of coronavirus with respect to anxiety is the presence of fever.
Therefore, and following the recommendations made by the Spanish health authorities, it is advisable to make sure of the presence of fever before resorting to attendance health, avoiding collapse of the emergency services. In any case, people who feel these sensations can consult the health information services and check if their symptoms coincide with the coronavirus.
In the event that a viral infection is ruled out, the person affected by anxiety can perform slow breathing exercises (with slow and deep inspiration and expiration) for a few minutes and observe whether the pressure in the chest and the difficulty in breathing improve; assume and accept stress and anxiety as normal (since it is normal to feel anguish in these strange circumstances); and distract attention with social behaviors (talking to family members at home or by telephone or videoconference), with mechanical behaviors such as household cleaning routines, or small physical exercises such as walking down the hallway of the home. If the anxiety continues, you can turn to health psychologists who will know how to understand and take care of your individual emotional needs to make these days of quarantine more bearable. In this way, we will also be able to overcome this psychological consequence of the coronavirus.