Five months into the pandemic, medical professionals are concerned about how related stress, anxiety, and worry are manifesting itself physically.
For 35-year-old Lauren Halvorsen, the stress of the last five months have exasperated a normally controllable preexisting condition. "I've had eczema since I was a kid and I've always been able to manage it pretty easily with [medicinal] steroids," says the Dupont Circle resident who also recently was laid off from her job at a local theater company. "But it's a stress-induced condition... and now it's become completely unmanageable."
Flare-ups are worse and more often now, she says—her condition is the worst it's ever been.
"This is how my stress is externalizing itself. Like, my entire life got upended. So, it makes sense that my face is literally peeling off," Halovorsen says. "It feels like an adequate emotional and physical response to all the turmoil."
She's far from the only person seeing pandemic-related stress and anxiety manifest physically.
H Street resident Robyn Swirling says her sleep patterns are now completely out of whack. "It spirals everything else. It makes working [during the day] really challenging," says the 34-year-old. "When you don't feel productive, it makes it impossible to feel like cooking a healthy meal. It makes me not want to go on longer walks with my dog ... my brain is just doing too much."
Five months into the pandemic, medical professionals are concerned about how related stress, anxiety, and worry are affecting people's physical health. Many are getting less sleep, some are experiencing "shock hair loss," and upset stomachs are commonplace.
"I'm seeing more physical complaints that are closely linked to psychiatric complaints," says Dr. Tony Roberson, a professor at George Washington University and a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, specializing in child and adolescent mental health care. "Symptoms could be a lot more severe, a lot more prevalent, and a lot more frequent with stress."
Fatigue, headaches, lack of sex drive, muscle tension, chest pain, stomach problems, and insomnia are common symptoms that are often linked to stress, Roberson says. These physical issues can also lead to more mental health challenges, something that Roberson says sometimes gets overlooked. "It really goes hand-in-hand. If the physical health is compromised, then mental health could be compromised, and vice versa," he says.
Isolation, exacerbated by the necessity of quarantining or social distancing, can also intensify stress. "When people isolate, they get more stressed... which can cause physical problems," says Roberson. "It's all connected."
Stress can also cause unconscious behaviors that lead to physical health issues. "About six weeks ago, I woke up and my jaw was just in terrible condition," says Swirling, "I realized how much I've been clenching my jaw [in my sleep]."
Dentists have seen an uptick in stress-related jaw clenching and teeth grinding since the start of the pandemic in the D.C. area. "Yes, definitely seen an increase," says Dr. Arousha Jahangiri who runs a practice in Dupont Circle. "And all the things that come with bruxism (the dental term for teeth grinding): broken teeth, cracked teeth, jaw pain, which can lead to earaches. Everybody kind of releases their tension in different ways, and [for] a lot of people, it's grinding."
Jaw clenching is a similarly reflexive behavior that can cause physical pain and harm the teeth. It's also extremely common—even dentists themselves have a hard time not doing it.
"I clench my teeth, but have tried to make it a habit when I check my phone, to make sure my jaw is in a resting position and open," says Dr. Stephanie Simmonett, a dentist in Foggy Bottom. "Especially when checking Twitter."
The dentists say being aware of teeth grinding and jaw clenching is the first step to stopping it. Wearing a mouthguard, and putting a warm compress on painful areas can help.
Roberson recommends all the usual stuff to help manage stress: physical activity, meditation, trying to get proper sleep, picking up a hobby that's enjoyable.
He also suggests interaction with other people whenever possible and safe. "Engaging in human contact, that in of itself is a stress reliever," says Roberson. "When you can and it's safe, it's very important to spend time with family and friends."
Both Halverson and Swirling say they are taking advice from their own doctors about finding ways to manage their stress-related physical ailments.
Halverson goes on two to three mile walks every day, tries to eat healthy foods, and wears a mouthguard to bed (she, too, is grinding her teeth). She's also trying not to get too stressed about her eczema and remember that she's dealt with this her whole life. "Last week, I had a horrible flare and it was terrible. But a week later, I look and feel a lot better," she says.
Swirling says she's more conscious of her clenching. She's also trying to get back in the routine of doing yoga every day. She says acknowledging and talking with friends about the difficulties of the pandemic is helpful.
"Everybody is struggling in all of this. There's all kinds of reasons why people are stressed and it's hitting everyone in some way physically," she says.