Coronavirus-induced anxiety can be just as damaging as the virus

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Cathy Borland sits on a lawn chair at the end of her daughter’s driveway. She’s with her husband, Bob. The two watch from afar as their grandchildren chase one another around the front yard. While she smiles on the outside sadness lies within. Cathy and Bob are social distancing—times five. That is, if the couple were at a ball game, they’d be in the nosebleed section.

Borland lives just north of New York City, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus. Aside from the one visit to her daughter’s house, Borland hasn’t left her home in four weeks.

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“You worry because it doesn’t seem to be getting any better and I’m just so afraid for my kids and my grandchildren,” Borland said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s stressful…it’s stressful.”

Borland will pick weeds in her garden to ease her anxiousness, watch a movie or experiment with new recipes. At the end of the day, Borland says her prayers, lays her head on her pillow and falls asleep. The next six hours will be her only respite from worry.

Health experts are urging people to stay calm during the COVID-19 pandemic— to try meditating, exercising or learning a new skill to name a few. People know what to do, but the question is why they should do it.

A bidirectional relationship exists between chronic disease and anxiety. The more one worries, the more likely a person will develop a chronic condition. At the same time, a chronic condition induces anxiety.

“Anxiety is meant to pass through the body,” Carol Ewing-Garber, PhD and director of the applied physiology lab at Columbia University, Teachers College, told Fox News. “When a person holds onto stress, harmful biological changes occur causing damage making a person more susceptible to heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer among other illnesses including the coronavirus.”

The biological changes activate a person’s sympathetic nervous system -- the part of the body that is responsible for our fight or flight response. When under stress, the system releases hormones called catecholamines. Under the umbrella of catecholamines are hormones, including adrenaline, epinephrine noradrenaline and norepinephrine, Ewing-Garber said.

“The release of these catecholamines ramps up the cardiovascular system and affects blood flow to the body. In itself, this response does not cause damage to the body—it facilitates necessary bodily functions to meet immediate needs and is quickly resolved,” she said.

However, if the response remains consistently in high gear and a person remains in a chronic period of stress, the result is damaging and reduces our immune function. This potentially puts a person at-risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection. Also, if an anxious individual contracts the virus, the person is more likely to experience complications.

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John Allegrante, PhD and professor of health education, also of Columbia University, agreed. Anxiety has a deleterious impact on bodily functions such as breathing, the heartbeat and digestion, he said.

“What’s so damaging about the current situation, where there is not only the uncertainty of the seriousness of infection with COVID-19 and the uncertainty of what we face in the aftermath, is that chronic stress and the prolonged state of heightened vigilance can be exhausting to the human spirit, which only furthers the spiral of anxiety,” he said.

That is, not getting the pause from anxiety is likely to be almost as debilitating as the risk of acquiring the virus itself.

But it’s not only about the anxiety-related risk of a coronavirus infection. It’s also about what’s to come in terms of economic repercussions. The economy is in turmoil. Businesses are closing. Unemployment has skyrocketed. And people are glued to the stock market as they watch their retirement funds disappear.

This is called financial anxiety, according to Dan Geltrude, CPA and founder of New Jersey-based Geltrude and Company, and it has the same deadly effects.

“As far as anxiety and financial anxiety [during the COVID-19 pandemic]…I’ve been dealing with it as much as my clients,” he said. “That fear comes from the unknown. The unknown triggers financial anxiety especially now and I have to get my clients to a point where they can be certain about uncertainty.”

Part of that is, Geltrude, also the author of best- selling book, Positive Financial Karma, said, is getting his clients to recognize that everyone is going through this. But if his clients are so caught up in anxiety, they aren’t listening making it difficult for them make good financial decisions.

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“The world is not going to be the same after this and those who are going to be most financially successful are going to be the ones who adapt to the new normal and we can’t be afraid of that,” he said.

But aside from the economic anxieties, worrying that a loved one will become infected with COVID-19 or die as a result of complications from it seems to be hitting people the hardest, at least for Borland.

“The fear and anxiety that someone I love will contract the coronavirus is a feeling that might never go away,” she says. “I’m trying to be strong, but it’s heartbreaking. It’s just heartbreaking."