The effects of COVID-19 have been extensive, with more than seven million confirmed cases and more than 200,000 deaths in the US alone. COVID-19 has caused additional impacts on healthcare; for example, patients have delayed seeking care for serious symptoms over fears of exposure to COVID-19. But the consequences of COVID-19 have reached beyond healthcare alone, with daily impacts on our financial, social, and emotional well-being.
As we attempt to cope and settle into this new normal, we will learn about the long-term effects of these hardships. Doctors have already begun to study the effects of COVID-related stress and anxiety on people around the world.
Physical effects of stress
Stress can have real physical effects on the body, and it has been linked to a wide range of health issues. Stress directly activates our sympathetic nervous system, initiating a fight-or-flight response that can elevate blood pressure and blood sugar. Though potentially useful in the short term from an evolutionary standpoint, stress can worsen hypertension and diabetes when it occurs chronically. Stress can disrupt our sleep, and can lead us to make unhealthy food choices, as we seek comfort foods or abandon portion control.
A recent study suggests that stress due to the pandemic may already be affecting our heart health.
The link between stress and heart health
Stress cardiomyopathy, also called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy and broken-heart syndrome, is a cardiac disorder characterized by a sudden onset of chest pain and heart dysfunction that mimics a heart attack. But, in contrast with what is seen during a heart attack, doctors are unable to find evidence of a blood clot or abnormalities with cardiac blood flow.
Typical stress cardiomyopathy patients are postmenopausal women experiencing sudden onset of chest pain and shortness of breath. The link between stress and stress cardiomyopathy is well documented;