The coronavirus doesn’t just affect the lungs. Several months after their infection, many people say they have become anxious, sleepless, or even depressed. In July, the San Raffaele Hospital and Research Institute in Milan asked more than 400 hospitalized adult patients how they were feeling one month after their stay. Result: phalf of them said they had developed at least one of these psychological disorders, with a predominance of anxiety and insomnia. “We cannot say at this stage that the virus causes a psychiatric illness in itself, observes the head of the psychiatry department of the Albert-Chenevier hospital in Créteil (AP-HP), Antoine Pelissolo. But it can amplify problems in people with a history of psychiatry, especially when the infection has been severe and caused significant inflammation that can likely affect the brain. ”
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And if the virus does not act directly on the brain system, it is the unprecedented and traumatic experience of the disease that can leave its mark. “It is impossible to separate the biological action of the virus on the brain and the psychological consequences of the ordeal of the disease – especially when it has caused a long hospital stay – which can lead to the same post-traumatic symptoms: anxiety, anxiety, fear, depression ”, concludes Antoine Pelissolo.
“I can’t laugh out loud anymore”
At 36, Nina became asthmatic. And sometimes his heart races dangerously, for no reason. The turning point was on March 25, when his cough started to hiss and seemed to fail. “I woke up my husband, I thought I would die”, she says. The Québécoise is rushed to hospital, with an oxygen level “very low”. Subsequently, his daily life and that of those around him are turned upside down: having a conversation or playing with his children becomes a test for his lungs. The days of rain or heat are dreaded, because oxygen is more difficult to draw there. “I can’t laugh out loud anymore. It’s a big loss of enjoyment of life! ” she adds.
When, in June, Nina finally arrives to have an appointment with a pulmonologist, the specialist can only prescribe inhalations. “I was like ‘If even a pulmonologist can’t help me, no one can.’ I had put so much hope in this meeting ”, she remembers, distraught. She tells of the days of tears and emptiness that follow, she nevertheless “Of such a cheerful nature”. “I’m afraid I’ll never be cured. My pulmonologist and my doctor said that it was possible for me to remain asthmatic for the rest of my life ”, reports the thirty-something, who is relearning to use her lungs with a physiotherapist. “I’m afraid to leave my house”she said, embarrassed. “The worst thing is to tell us it’s only psychological”, specifies the ex-student in psychology, acknowledging that anxiety worsens her crises but is not the cause.
Body and psyche are inseparable, but the latter can have an unexpected influence. In mid-April, Céline loses her sense of smell. The following week, she starts to cough. Still later, her rib cage is tight. Then come fever, swollen veins, dizziness. And yet the tests are negative every time. To understand what is happening to her, the Belgian consults a cardiologist, neurologist, ENT specialist, pulmonologist… But nothing. “I could no longer cling to their word of authority, because they were destitute”, regrets the forties, mentioning the margin of error of PCR tests.
Caught between bodily pain and the vagueness of their cause, Céline begins to have insomnia. “I was afraid of never waking up again, of dying”, she recalls. She is trying to kill herself. Until the day a doctor, “The first in empathy with me”say the word “psychosomatic” and explains that after a trauma, the brain sends negative signals to the body. Stress, for example, can cause acid to flow back into the stomach and into the esophagus, compressing breathing.
In Celine’s case, the cause would not be the virus, but the grueling confinement – between the class at home for her son, a burnout and the climate of health insecurity relayed by the media. Psychic pathology would have spilled over onto the body, and not the other way around. The remedy for her was hypnosis and sophrology.
“They think I’m somatizing”
Post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest itself as heart palpitations, tremors, insomnia and again, anxiety and depression, caused by fear and a feeling of helplessness. Problem: all this strongly resembles the effects of Covid, which confuses the diagnoses.
Some patients suffer from this entanglement, especially when doctors “Psychiatry the symptoms” : “They believe that it is in my head, that I somatize my psychological problems”, laments Nathalie, dental hygienist. She has become “Depressed and anxious” not because of the Covid, according to her, but of the“Incomprehension of the medical profession” which based on the negative result of his PCR test. “Except that it was done on March 30th when I started to feel the symptoms on the 16th. It was too late”, she protests.
When one day she confided to a doctor that she had felt a very strong pressure in her heart, “As if he was going to come out of the chest”, the caregiver interprets it as a stress stroke and prescribes a muscle relaxant. Two days later, his heart races dangerously, resisting the drug which, according to his pharmacist, is contraindicated for arrhythmia. “By believing only in the stress thesis, my doctor did not take the cardiac risk seriously”, Nathalie advances. She also explains her depression by her financial worries, not working for five months. “And who knows, it could be that the virus has made the situation worse”, she observes.
“As if the system was broken”
To the feeling of being misunderstood by doctors is added the reaction of relatives, when the person develops unusual forms of the disease like Laure, who has been feeling the symptoms for five months. “by vague». The first time she experienced respiratory distress was on March 24, without being officially certain that she had contracted the virus, as PCR tests were then reserved for nursing staff or patients with severe symptoms. The three serological tests carried out since, to detect the presence of antibodies as proof of the passage of the virus in the body, are all negative.
She has not contracted anything, but the body, for its part, is racing: “Sometimes I don’t do anything in particular, and suddenly I run out of air, I can’t breathe anymore”, describes the young woman. Doctors are not sure if she is still carrying the virus or if the body is reacting in a vacuum. “As if the system is broken.” Her stomach is still paddling, she has lost 14 kilos since March. The worst thing is the reaction of those around him who, after his attacks of vomiting and headache, throws him “It’s in his head”, or “The Covid, it lasts only three weeks”. Laure finally slams the door. “People don’t believe you, we are isolated from everything”, calls out to the thirty-something. An age when the family worries less about their health.
Laure goes to a psychologist every week, “To help him understand what’s going on.” Like the other people interviewed, she found comfort with patients on Facebook groups such as “I had the Covid”, “Covid-19 testimonies: illness, cure, tips and support” or even “Sick and cured of the Covid -19 in France, Switzerland and Belgium ”. A way to learn from the experience of others, knowing that everyone is going through the disease with different symptoms and after-effects.
Clara (1), for example, counted that 133 days after contracting the virus, she has panic attacks and shares her tips for recovery: meditation and vitamin therapy. Or Hélène (1), who talks about her confusion and brain fog that has arisen regularly since March. “The neurologist says that it is a kind of trauma to the nervous system, and that over time, it will get back to normal … The only watchword is therefore patience and rest”, she writes. Others give one last key: think about the happiness of being still alive.
(1) The first names have been changed.