Viruses, no matter the type, can contribute to mental illness (or at least mental health concerns) for many reasons; mental health and physical health are very much connected.
As humans, we are exposed to countless pathogens each day. Being aware of how viruses can impact not just your body, but also your mind, is the often first step necessary to educate oneself on how to properly care for all aspects of health.
Regardless of whether or not your mental health concerns/symptoms are the result of a virus or not, help and insight is available.
Perhaps the most beneficial type of help is that of a licensed professional (from a therapist, counselor, or others in the field) is more accessible now than ever. For more information, resources, and direct access to care, feel free to check out the following link: https://www.mytherapist.com/advice/.
How Viruses Impact Mental Health
Viral infections can impact mental health in two ways: indirectly and directly.
Indirectly, the emotional stress caused by being sick can burden the mind. Even long after you recover, the consequences of being sick (falling behind on school and work, missing important events, etc.) can continue to be distressing.
When an individual lacks skills or coping mechanisms to healthily manage these stressors, mental health can deteriorate rather quickly. This is especially true for long-term illnesses.
High levels of stress are known to cause the following changes in emotion and behavior, among others:
- Anger, sorrow, anxiety, frustration, fear
- Change in eating habits
- Lack of energy, or fatigue
- Changes in interests and desires
- Poor concentration and impaired decision making
- Poor sleep and nightmares
- Headache, body ache, stomach issues, skin rashes, and other bodily reactions
- Worsening of chronic physical and mental health issues
Directly, viruses have an impact on the immune system, which in turn can have an impact on brain health.
When the body’s immune system reacts to infection, it releases cytokines (chemicals secreted by immune cells that help signal to fight infection) in parts of the brain that have been linked to psychiatric conditions.
The secretion of cytokines in these brain areas sometimes leads to a disruption in synthesis of neurotransmitters (chemicals necessary for functioning of the nervous system) that cells in the central nervous system utilize to communicate with each other.
Because this phenomenon can adversely affect cell-to-cell communication, it can also drastically impact emotion and behavior.
Additionally, some chemical species that are associated with the body’s inflammatory response toward pathogens can lead to neuronal death (death of brain cells). Thus, with less neurons left to effectively carry out cell-to-cell communication, behavior and emotion cannot be properly regulated.
Viral latency is the term used to describe the ability of a virus to stay dormant within a host’s cells.
In latent infection, the entire genome (complete set of genes) of the virus is included inside a host’s cell. Only a select number of antigens, and no viral particles, are produced during this time, but the virus can continue to linger in the body for an extended period of time.
Under certain conditions, an entire viral genome in the body can be reactivated. As a result, the host cell can swell and disintegrate, releasing viruses into the body and allowing for further infection of other cells.
While latent viral infections are typically controlled by the competent immune systems of adults, there are conditions that can reactivate suppressed viral infection and continuously wreak havoc on the body.
For example, varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is one form of herpesvirus known to infect humans. When it is reactivated later during the latent stage, it causes shingles in older adults.
It is important to take care of both your physical and mental health, as they are integrally related. That means, in many cases, in order to lead a happy life, you must also strive to live a healthy one.
Protect yourself from viral infection whenever possible, and if you do get sick, don’t be afraid to seek the treatment you need and deserve.