Few things in recent history have had such a significant impact on so many people worldwide as COVID-19. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports over 1.1 million deaths and over 100 million confirmed cases, highlighting the virus’s devastating impact on families nationwide. Along with the virus itself, the country has had to navigate issues such as shortages at the grocery store, mass layoffs, eLearning, remote work and countless other disruptions to daily life.
For many people, life has largely returned to normal. Most workers who experienced layoffs have returned to work, many employees are back in the office for at least a couple days per week, and motivating distracted kids to complete online lessons is a distant memory.
For others, COVID continues to have an impact on day-to-day life. According to the CDC, about a fifth of people who contracted the virus still have what the agency is calling long COVID. This condition is marked by ongoing symptoms such as mental fog, memory loss, difficulty focusing on tasks, headaches and chronic fatigue. While long COVID research is still lacking and scientists are still exploring the factors and mechanisms that may result in long COVID symptoms, early studies suggest that the virus may have a long-lasting impact on the individual’s physical and mental health.
Understanding Serotonin and Its Role in Mental Health
An individual’s mental health depends on a variety of internal and external factors. They may have control over some of these factors, such as how much sleep they get on a regular basis and whether they have hobbies that help them manage stress. Other factors are much harder to control, such as whether the body is producing the right chemicals in the right amounts. One of these chemicals is serotonin.
What is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that naturally occurs in the body. This chemical wears a lot of different hats, from helping regulate sleep/wake cycles to making sure blood clots when the body is wounded. In the brain, serotonin plays a vital role in stabilizing the individual’s mood and enabling them to learn and remember new information.
How Does Serotonin Affect Mental Health?
Because serotonin has such a large impact on the individual’s mood, we often refer to it as the body’s natural feel-good chemical. When our serotonin levels are normal, we typically feel calm and happy and enjoy an overall sense of well-being.
If serotonin levels are too low, on the other hand, the individual may notice symptoms that negatively affect their mental health. For example, they may have difficulty focusing on tasks, or they may experience feelings of hopelessness, sadness and lack of motivation. They may also have a challenging time retaining new information and remembering important tasks or commitments.
For that reason, many medications that help treat conditions such as anxiety, depression and mood disorders target the body’s serotonin levels. In fact, a whole class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are formulated to increase how much serotonin the body produces and absorbs.
Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health
Researchers are still exploring the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. Because much of the research around the virus focused on slowing the spread of the sickness and preventing hospitals’ resources from becoming depleted, little attention was given to how the virus affected peoples’ mental health. Measures such as social distancing, shutting down entertainment venues and isolating at home may have been necessary to break the chain of transmission, but we’re still measuring the impact these precautions had on mental health.
According to some research, depression among U.S. adults tripled in 2020 due to the pandemic, going from 8.5% before COVID to 27.8% in 2020. Even as life returned to normalcy, depression levels continued to rise. In 2021, about 33% of adults in the U.S. reported feelings of depression, pointing to the pandemic’s long-term impact on mental health. While COVID-related mental health problems have affected people across all demographics, certain people have been more likely to report depression symptoms, including those who have comparatively low incomes, those who live alone and those who experienced pandemic-related stressors such as job loss or the death of a loved one.
Research Findings and the Serotonin-COVID Connection
As it turns out, COVID’s impact on mental health may go beyond the stress of contracting the virus, losing loved ones or enduring significant disruptions to daily life. According to research coming out of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the virus may linger in the body long after COVID symptoms resolve.
When looking at a group of people reporting long COVID symptoms, researchers discovered that some components of the virus remained in a person’s gut for months after the initial infection. Even though the individual was no longer experiencing the classic COVID symptoms such as aches and pains, sore throat and fever, their immune system was still fighting the virus by releasing certain proteins. These proteins cause inflammation that reduces the gastrointestinal tract’s ability to absorb tryptophan, which is a building block for numerous neurotransmitters, including serotonin.
When the body experiences chronic inflammation and isn’t absorbing as much tryptophan, its serotonin store becomes depleted. This appears to cause long COVID symptoms such as mental fog and memory loss.
Managing Mental Health Amid the Pandemic: Strategies for Well-Being
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a variety of changes to virtually every household in the country, altering daily routines, amplifying financial stress and creating social isolation. Many worried about how their own bodies would respond to the virus, whether their vulnerable loved ones would be safe, how their jobs would be affected, and what the future would hold. To make the issue even more complex, misinformation, rumors and conspiracies were rampant, making it difficult to know who to trust or where to find reliable information.
For many people, life has mostly returned to normal. For some, however, the symptoms of long COVID continue to cause challenges and complications in everyday life. For that reason, it’s important to learn effective self-care strategies that promote mental health and well-being. This includes taking care of your body, taking care of your mind and maintaining strong social connections.
Taking Care of Your Physical Health
During a pandemic, it’s more important than ever to be diligent about taking care of your physical health. This may include:
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Limiting screen time
- Getting enough sleep
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding drugs and alcohol
Taking Care of Your Mental Health
During a pandemic, much of the focus is on physical health. However, as we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, taking care of mental health is equally important. Steps you can take to reduce stress include:
- Maintaining a regular routine
- Avoiding the urge to overload on information
- Creating a positive mindset by focusing on what you’re grateful for
- Finding healthy distractions, such as hobbies, journaling or tackling a house project
- Maintaining Social Connections
Relationships are vital during times of stress, even when maintaining them requires some creativity. Ways to build and strengthen relationships may include:
- Volunteering in your community
- Supporting those who need to quarantine at home or be hospitalized for an illness through regular video and phone chats
- If you’re still working virtually, maintaining regular contact with coworkers through emails, texts and phone calls
Mental illnesses such as depression are treatable, and many who are living with symptoms such as mental fog, persistent sadness and depression are able to improve their quality of life with professional intervention. While long COVID symptoms can be disruptive, our mental health professionals can help you build healthy habits and coping mechanisms.