Fear of dying, ‘anxiety spirals’: Mental health effects last long after these Manitobans’ bouts of COVID-19

Long after their symptoms receded, some Manitobans who had COVID-19 say they’re still recovering mentally from the impact of the illness.

Danielle Lubiansky was officially deemed recovered from COVID-19 at the end of August. But a week after she was cleared by public health workers, she still hadn’t left her home out of fear of putting someone else at risk.

When she did leave, she was filled with dread when she saw neighbours in their yards while walking her dog. A trip to a Starbucks drive-thru, chosen as a gentle way to re-enter public spaces, triggered a powerful emotional response.

“I remember just bursting into tears,” said Lubiansky, who was 19 weeks pregnant when she tested positive on Aug. 19.

“I was so overwhelmed by that experience, and just being near a person.”

Dr. Katy Kamkar, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and chair of the Canadian Psychological Association’s traumatic stress sector, said it’s been clear since the beginning that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacts on mental health.

In addition to the many stressors brought on by the pandemic, ranging from financial to social to physical, severe illness can sometimes have an impact on how people who experience it view themselves and the world around them, she said.

“At times it can have an impact on the concept of the self, and in turn our belief systems — belief about the self, belief about the world, our sense of safety, our sense of security,” said Kamkar, who is also an assistant professor in the University of Toronto department of psychiatry.

“If we also had any struggle before with any anxiety, this can increase the anxiety sometimes.”

Multi-dimensional recovery

Kamkar stressed that every person’s experience of COVID-19 is unique, and so is its effect on their mental health.

“I think we really need to have [an] appreciation here of the multiple factors, the multi-dimensional aspects into this, and the mental health aspect of when someone might be impacted by COVID-19 in terms of recovery,” she said.

Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist and chair of the Canadian Psychological Association’s traumatic stress sector, says the mental health effects of COVID-19 are wide-ranging and highly individual. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

For Saif Mirza, a University of Manitoba student who tested positive in September, the symptoms brought on by the virus were like nothing he’d ever experienced. They ranged widely, from severe headaches and excruciating body pain to diarrhea and nausea.

With the physical effects came fears of the long-term impacts and thoughts of dying, he said.

“It’s a new virus. No one knows what’s going to happen,” he said.

“Those were the questions revolving around my mind. What’s going to happen? [Am I going to] die? Or [fears that] it’s going to affect my lungs.”

Two weeks into the illness, Mirza’s mental health challenges reached a new level, he said. He’s had experience with anxiety and panic attacks in the past, but this was far worse.

“I lost interest in everything. Literally no interest in friends, family, what’s going on, what’s going on around the world,” he said. “[I was] laying in the bed all day, no activity, zero.”

His physical and mental health were so badly affected he had to drop his university classes, he said. He plans to resume classes when the winter term begins on Jan. 18.

Mirza said one of the biggest challenges was having to experience the illness without the in-person support of loved ones.

“That’s the worst part, I think. I was just alone,” he said.

“In this virus, unfortunately, no one’s going to come close to you and no one should.”

‘Every little cough or sniffle’ leads to anxiety

Mirza’s mental health has improved over the past few months, he said, but he’s still not back to his normal, sociable self.

He finds himself leaving his phone on airplane mode to avoid interactions he’d usually seek out.

“It’s been … almost four months, and still sometimes I do get the weird thoughts of dying, or maybe my breath going away,” he said. In those moments, he breathes fast, in and out, just to be sure everything is OK.

Lubiansky says many of her fears early on after recovering were of possibly getting someone else sick. Before she left the house for the first time, she called public health to make sure once again it was safe.

“A lot of my anxiety was actually rooted around the idea that, you know, maybe I could still give it to people, and that somehow I was a problem being in the world, even though public health had cleared me,” she said.

After her symptoms improved, she also had more mental space to dwell on how she got sick in the first place. She’d been meticulously careful whenever she left her home, and her case was deemed community transmission.

“I became kind of obsessed with trying to figure out where I would have contracted it, so that that couldn’t happen again,” she said.

Now, nearly six months after she tested positive, Lubiansky said she’s still facing lingering mental health effects. In recent weeks, those have been more focused on a possible impact on her child, who is due to be born on Saturday.

The lack of control over situations involving the virus, including questions about how it may impact pregnancies, are common sources of anxiety for her right now. 

“If I haven’t had enough water and I have a little bit of a cough in my throat, it can easily send me into … an anxiety spiral,” Lubiansky said.

“Every little cough or sniffle or anything sets me down on the path to overanalyze.”

Self-care, self-kindness

If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, Kamkar urges you to reach out.

“We know that seeking support is very important, among loved ones and family and colleagues and also any self-help,” she said.

Beyond your normal support network, it’s also important to seek professional help if you want or need to, she said.

“Treatment is effective. [It’s] very important for people to know they are not alone and not to suffer in silence,” she said.

It’s also important to practise self-care, self-compassion and self-kindness, she said.

“[That means] treating [the] self nicely, engaging in self-care and … taking a more humanistic approach and being able to reframe the thoughts and the emotions,” she said.

In addition to Kamkar’s advice, based on his own experience, Mirza recommended finding the coping mechanisms that work for you. In his case, it’s washing his face with cold water.

Lubiansky said her message to others who get COVID-19 is that it’s not your fault you’re sick, especially in terms of fears of having exposed other people.

“There’s a lot of shame and guilt that can come from that,” she said.

“I think just being told that it’s not your fault that you have it, and you didn’t intentionally put anybody else at risk, would be a really important message for people to hear.”