Did you know that COVID-19 can cause lasting side effects, like brain fog, in people who have recovered from the illness? Scientists are still working on the reasons behind the long term neurological symptoms that appear to be causally related to the body’s response to the virus. It’s been a long several months as our country continues to fight COVID-19. With over 7.5 million cases in the U.S. and that number growing daily as of this writing, it’s likely that you know someone who has been infected. You may also be worried about your own risk. And now, research suggests that COVID-19 can cause brain inflammation, PTSD and other brain health concerns. If you or someone you love has suffered from coronavirus, here are some things you should know about COVID-19 and brain fog and other neurological side effects.
Early in the pandemic, a group of Columbia University neurologists began reviewing the neurological effects of other past (not novel) coronavirus outbreaks, in an attempt to understand what the new virus would bring. As they treated patients in New York, they noted lingering cognition problems and psychiatric issues with recovering patients. Post-COVID-19 symptoms included brain fog, fatigue, trouble concentrating, difficulty waking up in the morning and trouble working longer hours. One doctor reported, “Some also have more specific thinking and behavior problems—they forget the names of people they know well, they can’t follow along during business conversations, prioritizing and planning is suddenly difficult, they are inexplicably anxious and sleep poorly.” Anna Nordvig, MD, a neurologist and postdoctoral clinical and research fellow at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said, “I'm not yet convinced that the virus invades the brain’s neurons or its other cells. I think it’s more likely that this vast, systemic inflammation affects many organs including the brain and the immune system within the brain. This changes the way the brain signals. Columbia neuropathologists recently led a report on a patient with inflammatory changes in the brain during his COVID-19 infection. This is a hint—that these changes may be occurring even without a true infection of the brain cells themselves.” Many who have recovered from coronavirus have complained of ongoing problems with cognitive functioning, headaches, fatigue, insomnia and lingering anxiety. These patients often feel that COVID-19 has caused not only brain fog, but lasting damage to their brains. Research continues in an effort to determine the specific aftereffects of COVID-19 infection on the brain, though some scientists are finding that many of these same cognitive concerns can also be the result of psychological trauma and stress.
If you or someone you know already suffers from brain fog, mild cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease, the Alzheimer’s Association provides resources and tips about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for individuals, caregivers and families.
UCLA Health recently released a COVID-19 report, suggesting that the brain fog that can occur after recovery from the virus may, in fact, be caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A similar effect was recognized in recovering patients after SARS and MERS outbreaks. COVID-19 patients who have been intubated and/or put on respirators experience trauma, which can cause hallucinations and long-lasting frightening dreams and memories. These traumatic memories can cause PTSD. Many psychotherapists recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and medication to resolve PTSD and its symptoms.
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Besides the cognitive impact of getting coronavirus, many of us are suffering brain fog simply because of the ongoing stress of the pandemic. According to the University of Pennsylvania, the part of the brain called the limbic system becomes hyperactive during times of high stress, like would occur during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic event. The physiological acute stress response, known as the “fight or flight response”, causes your body to secrete hormones that increase your heart rate and your breathing, while increasing clotting in the blood (in anticipation of injury) and increasing the sensitivity of your eyes and ears. Unfortunately, many of us have been living in fight or flight mode since March 2020, suffering stress and anxiety as we attempt to get used to our “new normal.” This ongoing stress can cause the limbic system to override your executive functioning, leaving you with problems focusing, thinking, controlling emotions, and recalling information. Therapists suggest labeling feelings during difficult times, to activate executive functioning in the brain. This reduces the negative emotions related to the stress. Another way to boost resilience is through mindfulness, taking a few minutes to “be in the moment,” which can reduce overall stress levels and calm the mind and body. You can also take this personalized COVID resilience test.
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