“I was tired this morning, maybe I had a sore throat, was that a hint of a headache?” tweeted Deputy senior staffer Shayla Love, who revealed her boyfriend recently tested positive. “I took the test, it was negative, felt 100% comfortable straight away.”
“It’s funny how you feel better once that Covid test comes back negative,” another person tweeted.
For some experts, this experience reflects the connection between body and mind. “We have learned that social, emotional and behavioral factors affect health,” said Kaz Nelson, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “This mind-body connection is not to be underestimated. It’s real and it’s very powerful.”
But before we examine the mind-body connection regarding coronavirus testing, Nelson and other experts want us to stress that testing methods aren’t 100 percent reliable, and that widely used rapid home antigen tests in particular can yield incorrect results Negatives that lead people to mistakenly believe they are not contagious.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that Covid symptoms, whether from acute infections or “long Covid,” are not “imaginary symptoms that we can just think away,” Nelson said. “There is a real health problem, a real consequence on the neurological system and other organ systems of the body.”
The key question, she said, is, “How do we understand this powerful mind-body connection” in the context of all the other sources of information we have?
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In order to have a “nuanced understanding” of the various ways people might respond to testing and other realities of living with Covid-19, it is crucial to acknowledge the impact the pandemic has had on our lives, wrote Lekeisha Sumner, a clinical psychologist, in an email.
“The public has had to grapple with the impact of significant uncertainty, mixed public health messages, stigma and fears surrounding infection, changes in our social and economic circumstances, ongoing fears of contagion, changes in daily habits and grief related to the spread of the disease and Death rates — and all while expected to operate at pre-pandemic levels,” Sumner wrote. “We live with exceptionally high levels of ongoing stress with fragmented social networks.”
In particular, the worry of contracting Covid is often a significant source of stress for many people — and the human body can respond to certain stressors with physiological responses, said Rosalind Dorlen, clinical psychologist and member of the Division of Psychiatry at Overlook Medical Center in Summit , NJ
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“The overall Covid climate has activated stress responses,” Dorlen said of the effects of infection. After all, a positive or negative result could mean the difference between continuing life or the need to isolate – and potentially developing more serious consequences of infection, e.g. a long covid.
“Anytime our brains anticipate the consequences of something and then assess the threat and then deal with or focus on that threat, it can actually affect the experience of the threat [physical] symptoms,” Nelson said. “When that threat is removed, it actually leads to relief and a decrease in sensitivity to the body and the symptoms.”
According to Nelson, certain regions of the brain are responsible for recognizing unpleasant stimuli like pain, while other areas are involved in the emotional response to those sensations and how much attention you pay to them. This emotional response, she said, can increase or decrease a person’s sensitivity to physical feelings. She added that a negative coronavirus test is a “social-emotional behavioral signal that triggers relief” and could alter a person’s emotional response to their symptoms.
For example, Dorlen said, if you take several deep breaths or tell yourself, “Oh, I’m fine” after getting a negative result, you can feel your stress and anxiety ease.
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Another possible explanation for why you might feel better after a negative test might have to do with the nature of the symptoms, said Albert Ko, chair of the Department of Microbial Disease Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. Common mild symptoms, such as a sore throat, a stuffy or runny nose, or fatigue, can have a variety of causes — many of them “very temporary,” he said.
“You wake up in the morning probably with a stuffy nose from allergies. You get a postnasal drip. You get a sore throat,” he said. “Then you get tested and then the symptoms would probably go away because most sore throats and postnasal drip get better as the day goes on.”
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Still, Ko said, just because you test negative and feel better doesn’t mean you can be absolutely sure you don’t have Covid. “If you test negative but have a strong suspicion you’ve been exposed, you should have another test done a day or two later,” he said.
Among those using rapid antigen tests, “a lot of people come in with false negative results even if they have Covid,” Nelson said. “Obviously, if your symptoms subside and it’s a false negative test, that goes against our goals of infection reduction and control.”
Measures, she said, should be informed through several sources of information other than testing, including physical symptoms, exposure risk and community spread rates. “These are all sources of information to consider when making decisions about your behavior.”