Feeling under the weather? Long-term stress related to COVID-19 could cause unpleasant physical symptoms

Queen’s professor says emotional response to second wave restrictions likely based on anger and frustration

Students are now living through the second wave of the pandemic.
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With students trying out the new and unfamiliar territory of online learning at Queen’s, a toll could be taken on their mental health. New research has shown these effects can also turn into physical symptoms.

In an article published in the Queen’s Gazette, Kate Harkness, a professor in the department of psychology, explained that unpleasant physical symptoms can appear as a result of chronic stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[The] worst types of stress are […] chronic, unpredictable, and uncontrollable, and the COVID-19 pandemic checks off all [three],” Harkness wrote.

According to Harkness, a system in our bodies called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the culprit of these symptoms, which can vary from having painful menstrual cycles to pimple outbreaks. The HPA axis was crucial to our ancestors’ survival because it helped them respond quickly to life-threatening situations such as a predator attack.

Our bodies are conditioned to have the HPA axis release the stress hormone cortisol for short bursts during stressful situations.

READ MORE: Queen’s tests 400 students at COVID-19 testing centre in first week

However, when there is a prolonged timeframe of stress, like the COVID-19 pandemic, complications can arise due to the HPA axis continually firing for an extended period of time. The immune system will lose its ability to fight the inflammatory effects of cortisol, and the stress hormone will start to inflame the skin and other organs.

In an interview with The Journal, Harkness said the stress response can be different in the second wave of the pandemic.

“The emotions that people are feeling are moving away from the anxiety of ‘Am I going to get COVID?’ to more [of a] frustration,” Harkness said, referring to the anger students may feel about their lives being affected by public health guidelines once again.

Students had a brief sigh of relief when the Ontario provincial government allowed the opening of patios in early June and implemented the concept of social circles to allow people to socialize again. Last week, the provincial government reversed some of those guidelines, putting a pause on the idea of social circles and limiting the hours when restaurants can stay open.

Harkness provided a grounding perspective on the reasoning behind the guidelines being
rolled back.

READ MORE:In conversation with new provost, Student Wellness Services director

“COVID doesn’t care that we want to be out on patios,” she said. “Instead of seeing the guidelines as [constraints] to our personal freedom, instead see them as the best way that we have as a society to ensure the health of everybody.”

Harkness noted that while students are unable to control public health guidelines, they can control their reaction to them.

Having a routine for your day and taking time to schedule the activities you enjoy into your routine has significant positive effects on your physical and emotional wellbeing, according to Harkness. There are many activities people love to do that don’t conflict with public health guidelines.

Harkness also recommended that if students are finding themselves overwhelmed or noticing their stress is interfering with schoolwork or personal relationships, it would be a good time to seek out mental health services.

READ MORE: Student Wellness Services prepared to test for COVID-19, majority of counselling held remotely

She also stressed the importance of checking in with friends that might not have reached out in a while.

Despite the difficulties of the second wave of the pandemic, Harkness said the best course of action for students is to follow the recommended guidelines.

“The quickest way that we can open back up again is for everybody to follow the
new restrictions.”

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