Long COVID: looking after your mental health

When symptoms of COVID-19 linger for months, the mental health impacts can be significant. Here we provide some suggestions to help you manage your mental health if you have long COVID, or if you are anxious about developing it. 

Living with long COVID

For most people who get COVID-19, the illness is mild and recovery typically takes a week or two. For others though, symptoms might linger for months, and they may also change during that time.

Known as long COVID, this is thought to affect around one in 10 people who test positive, regardless of the severity of initial symptoms.

“Multiple studies are now showing that up to six months after COVID-19 infection, many people are reporting fatigue or muscle weakness and a quarter are experiencing sleep difficulties,” says Dr Jo Lane, a clinical psychologist and research fellow at Australian National University’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. 

As reported with many long-term illnesses, long COVID can cause an increase in challenges to our mental health.

These challenges may be your first experience of psychological symptoms, or it may be that you have existing mental health concerns which are being amplified.

Either way, it’s important to acknowledge them.

“People living with long COVID may experience uncertainty and anxiety around how it will impact them, for what period of time, and how this will affect their daily life,” says Lane.

“It can also take some time to adjust to living with long COVID and fatigue and work out what the ‘new normal’ is.”

The effects of fatigue

Many symptoms have been linked to long COVID, however research suggests that fatigue is among the most common and debilitating of them.

Lane has researched long-term fatigue extensively and says its relationship with mental health is complex.

“After the COVID infection itself, fatigue may be regarded as a primary symptom but it’s associated with many secondary factors.”

These might include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • sleep problems
  • muscle weakness
  • inability to work and perform daily activities
  • social isolation
  • relationship and financial difficulties.

All of these can worsen fatigue, which can negatively impact mental health and quality of life.

“In other words, fatigue can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety, and symptoms of depression and anxiety can worsen fatigue.”

How to support your mental health

If you’re living with long COVID, the following suggestions may help you cope better.

Find an understanding GP

It’s likely you’ll feel frustrated or even anxious if your symptoms aren’t taken seriously by those around you.

Simply feeling heard and believed by a GP, even if treatment options are limited, may help improve your outlook.

Seek help for fatigue

While it’s not the only symptom of long COVID, if you’re experiencing fatigue it’s important to seek help.

“One of the challenges of fatigue is that it’s invisible,” says Lane.

With this comes a range of problems, such as dismissive or disbelieving attitudes of the people around you.

However, says Lane emphatically, “fatigue is real and people aren’t ‘faking it’.

“While there’s no standard test to diagnose fatigue and there is no specific cure yet, early intervention is useful – particularly with a team of medical professionals that understand long-term medical conditions and who use an individualised and holistic or whole-person approach.”

A good place to start may be learning more about how the fatigue associated with long COVID shares similarities to other long-term fatigue conditions, as well as introducing some practical strategies that might help you manage your symptoms.

You can also call Emerge Australia’s free, national patient support and information service on 1800 865 321 or access its Telehealth Nurse Service.

Talk to people having a similar experience.

Taking part in online support groups or forums which bring people experiencing similar symptoms together may help you feel less alone.

“People do find it useful to talk to others living with long COVID and fatigue,” says Lane, “as it can be a safe place to share experiences with other people who understand.”

Lean on mental health support services

You can contact Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Counsellors are available 24/7 for a chat over the phone or online.

If you’d like to talk to a psychologist, bulk-billed video and telephone appointments are available with a GP referral.

Lifeline provides 24-hour crisis telephone support, on 131 114.

If you’re anxious about getting long COVID

If you haven’t had COVID-19, or have just contracted it, feeling worried about the possibility of long COVID is perfectly natural.

Lane says that while some worry can be helpful, too much can have the opposite effect. “Worry can help us problem solve and change our behaviours,” she explains. “However, too much worry is a symptom of anxiety.

“If you’re overwhelmed by worry and its impact on your everyday life, it’s good to talk to a trusted friend or a healthcare professional.”

You can learn more about how much worry is too much worry here.

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