How To Tell If You Have Coronavirus Or If You're Experiencing Anxiety

Symptoms like shortness of breath, chest tightness and headaches can occur with stress and COVID-19. Here's how to differentiate them.

We’re navigating unprecedented times. As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, many of us have found ourselves stuck in a cycle of anxiety and fear. Is that tightness in your chest and the shortness of breath just your body reacting to the uncertainty around you, or could you have possibly picked up COVID-19?

Some of the symptoms associated with anxiety and COVID-19 can overlap. Because of that, it can be hard to determine what you’re experiencing in the moment when you’re spiraling. Here’s what you need to know.

Anxiety Symptoms vs. COVID-19 Symptoms

“There are a few symptoms of COVID-19 that overlap with anxiety symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, loss of appetite and diarrhea,” according to Kate Denniston, a licensed naturopathic doctor at Los Angeles Integrative Health.

While difficulty breathing is a major known symptom of both anxiety and COVID-19, there are a couple key things that’ll help you differentiate one from the other. In order to understand what you’re dealing with, Denniston suggested taking a few moments to check in with yourself and try to think about what you were focused on before your symptoms began.

“Maybe you’ve been focused on the news, financial stress or worry about finding the supplies you need,” she said. “Do you have a history of anxiety? If so, how does what you’re feeling now compare to anxiety you’ve experienced in your body before?”

If you were able to calm yourself down and find a steady breathing pattern within those few minutes, you may not be dealing with the coronavirus.

“Shortness of breath associated with the COVID-19 infection is progressive in nature and can become life-threatening over a period of hours to days without medical care,” Sarah Johnson, chief medical officer at Landmark Recovery, said.

Another quick self-check you can do is to try talking, said Anthony Freire, the clinical director and founder of the Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling in New York. Freire, whose doctor believed he contracted the virus and has since recovered, said the most difficult part of dealing with the virus was the respiratory issues.

“They feel the same. Closed throat, can’t get enough air, shallow breathing,” he said. “If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, call someone. If you’re able to speak and they understand you, and you aren’t gasping for air, then it’s most likely anxiety.”

Another way to differentiate between COVID-19 and conditions with similar presentations include the presence of a persistent fever, typically above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“You might also experience other symptoms that won’t be present during an anxiety attack: a dry cough, aches and pains, tiredness and congestion,” said Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, a licensed therapist in Murrieta, Calfornia.

How To Handle Anxiety Surrounding The Coronavirus

First of all, understand that you aren’t alone in this struggle and that feeling anxious right now is completely normal.

“A little bit of anxiety is good because it keeps you alert. It is your body’s way of protecting you from harm,” Osibodu-Onyali said.

It’s that bit of anxiousness that will “trigger you to wash your hands, stay home and just be prepared,” she added.

“If you had no anxiety whatsoever, you’ll probably stop observing social distancing and put yourself at risk,” Osibodu-Onyali said. “When there is a new situation, it is totally normal to be alert. Anxiety occurs because of all the unknown factors — no known cure, no known timeline about when social distancing will end and no previous experience with a pandemic.”

In order to deal with the anxiety experienced during this time, Osibodu-Onyali offered a few suggestions:

Create a schedule for yourself.

Millions of people have suddenly been thrust into working from home and homeschooling. Don’t just lounge in your pajamas all day, but have a workable schedule for you and your family.

Turn off the news for a while.

Lots of people have the news on 24/7. All this does is it increases your anxiety. If you spend all day thinking about COVID-19, it gives the false impression that it is the only important thing in the world. Allow yourself to take a break.

Focus on what you can do.

There’s a lot we don’t know right now. But you can control what kind of person you can be during all of this: Someone who follows expert recommendations, brings a smile to others by posting positive messages on social media, reaches out to loved ones and creates structure in your home.

Coronavirus Preventative Measures Worth Taking

While you’re working to keep the anxiety in check, don’t forget to also stay protected from COVID-19 through necessary health measures.

By now, you probably know the things you should be doing to prevent picking up the virus — like washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, not touching your face with unwashed hands and limiting contact with folks through social distancing — but don’t forget to practice self-care as well.

Try to eat healthy meals, said Linda Anegawa, a physician at telehealth platform PlushCare. You should also aim for at least seven hours of sleep and go for social distancing walks when you can ― especially if the weather is nice. Getting adequate sun exposure, therefore vitamin D, can keep you healthy, Denniston added.

If you are dealing with symptoms associated with COVID-19, call your doctor or make a telehealth appointment before heading to the hospital. Monitor your temperature and track any other issues you might be having so you can communicate it to a professional.

However, there are some cases where you should seek help right away, Johnson said.

“Symptoms that signal a medical emergency and need for immediate medical attention include respiratory distress, confusion and mental status changes or high fever,” she said. “Individuals with known health problems ― such as diabetes, immune disorders and heart disease, or those in higher risk age groups ― should consult with medical providers at the first concern for infection.”


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