How pandemic anxiety — with symptoms from fatigue to fever — helped one woman take charge of her mental health

Cropped shot of a woman suffering from stomach cramps on the sofa at home
Dr. Rebecca Price, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh says physical symptoms of anxiety like digestive issues, muscle tension and headaches are common. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Below, Tarah Chieffi, a mom of three, shares her first-person experience with anxiety during the pandemic.

I knew something was wrong when I became so lightheaded and dizzy while cleaning my kids' bedroom that I had to lie down on their bunk bed. I'd been experiencing strange symptoms like trouble sleeping, headaches, heart palpitations, digestive issues and unexplained fevers for weeks, but this was the first time I felt completely helpless.

It was spring 2020 and, due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, my kids had just been sent home from school for the foreseeable future. I knew just enough about COVID-19 to be terrified of it, but not enough to know how to keep my family, much less myself, safe and happy in this strange new world.

Like so many others, I was worried and afraid all the time. There were so many unknowns, and on top of everything else, I was having unexplained health issues.

It would be months before I made the connection between my physical symptoms and the added stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic.

It all started with a visit to the gastroenterologist. My main concern was addressing the most pressing symptom rather than the root cause. For me, that was digestive issues which sent me running to the restroom more often than I'd care to discuss. My doctor prescribed a medication that helped with the gastrointestinal symptoms, but I was still experiencing other symptoms multiple times a week.

I felt horrible all the time. I'd start the day feeling fine, then get hit by a random fever in the afternoon and have to lie down. I couldn't sleep at night, so I was napping constantly. I felt like a really bad mom, but my kids, who ranged in age from 1 to 6 at the time, got a lot of extra screen time so they probably loved it.

I visited my primary care doctor where I underwent a slew of tests, including testing for COVID-19, all of which came back negative. At a follow up appointment a few months later, not much had changed. But being the curious person I am — and with "Dr. Google" only a few clicks away — I had done some homework: researching my symptoms to try and find the cause.

It was pretty obvious to me that I fit the bill for some of the mental symptoms of anxiety which, according to the Mayo Clinic, are things like nervousness, restlessness and constant worry, but it wasn't until I did more research that I realized anxiety disorders can manifest physically as well. I brought it up with my doctor and she agreed I fit the profile.

She sent in a prescription for Zoloft, an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), used to treat things like depression, anxiety and panic attacks, and recommended changes I could make at home, like practicing yoga and meditation, to alleviate my anxiety symptoms.

After a few weeks on medication, my symptoms dissipated drastically (although everyone reacts differently, and sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find the most effective medication). My digestive issues disappeared, my fevers went away and I was sleeping better at night. Looking back, I realize I've had mild symptoms of anxiety for much of my life — it just never felt unmanageable until the pandemic. I was afraid for our health and our futures and feeling powerless on both fronts caused a host of physical symptoms to bubble to the surface.

Tarah Cheffi with her three sons. (Photo: Tarah Cheffi)
Tarah Chieffi with her three sons. (Courtesy of Tarah Chieffi)

My mysterious physical symptoms made it difficult to pin down a diagnosis. I was curious how common this is, so I spoke with Rebecca Price, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh to find out.

"Anxiety and stress affect virtually all systems of the brain and body," Price confirmed. "Some of the most well-known symptoms of anxiety are thought patterns such as worry, dread or expecting the worst to happen at any moment, but anxiety also manifests in a range of physical symptoms like muscle tension, disrupted sleep, digestive distress or nausea, headaches, racing heart or other panic-like symptoms."

And those fevers? Turns out they can be a symptom as well. A 2018 study published in the Handbook of Clinical Neurology calls them psychogenic fevers, caused when stress creates an increase in core body temperature.

Price also mentioned behavioral patterns such as "avoidance, hypervigilance to danger, or repetitive behaviors intended to provide a sense of reassurance" as signs of anxiety.

While we all experience anxious feelings from time to time, it can be hard to know when to seek treatment. Price said it's all about how often those feelings and symptoms are present.

"If anxiety becomes persistent — occurring most days for several weeks or longer — or becomes disruptive to one's goals in work, social, family, academic or other settings, there are many helpful treatment options available that are proven to work," she told Yahoo Life. "You can start by speaking with your family physician, who may refer you to a specialist."

I've been managing my anxiety with medication and lifestyle changes for just over a year now. And, while I still experience ups and downs, I know the mental and physical signs to look for as well as how to take action to keep my symptoms under control.

For me, that means spending time outdoors, taking time to relax (even if that means the house isn't as clean as I'd like), starting the morning with yoga or deep breathing exercises and trying to get enough sleep.

If it hadn't been the pandemic, I'm sure it would have been something else, but I'm certain I wouldn't have sought help had it not been for the physical symptoms I was experiencing on top of the mental and emotional ones.

Turns out, I'm not alone. Price said she's seen a significant uptick in people seeking treatment for their mental health in the wake of the pandemic.

"We are absolutely undergoing what some are calling 'the second pandemic' or 'the mental health pandemic,'" she explained. "On top of all the unusual stress, grief and disruption to normal routines the pandemic has caused and continues to cause... many others may have postponed seeking help for ongoing or chronic mental health issues."

Price noted that in her region alone, there have been major shortages of inpatient psychiatric beds in recent months due to the higher number of patients now coming in with urgent mental health needs.

While sharing my own mental health struggles with the world isn't easy, if it helps just one person seek treatment and take charge of their own mental health, it's worth it. Because of this journey, I have the tools to manage my anxiety and be the mom, friend and person I want to be, even through difficult times like this.

I do still sometimes take an afternoon off of work and curl up on the couch with my kids, but it's because I want the extra snuggles and family time — not because my health issues are interfering with my day.

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