Burnout can cause illness

Why am I feeling so run down right now?

If you’re feeling completely wiped out, you’re not alone. It seems that we’re all feeling seriously run down right now – and not because we’ve got Covid. We spoke to an expert to find out why. 

First, you notice a tickle in the back of your throat. Then it turns into a cough. Your nose starts running, and soon, you’re sneezing. All you want to do is crawl back into bed. You pull out your trusty pack of LFTs, but to your surprise, it’s negative – again. It’s not Covid, so why are you still feeling so run down?

It turns out we’re all feeling this way. “I was just in bed for a week with the worst cold I’ve ever had,” one friend told me. “I actually don’t believe it’s not Covid,” moaned another. A quick look at Twitter confirms that there is definitely something going around.

Clearly, we are all feeling more run down than ever. And if it’s not Omicron, Delta, or even a new strain of Covid, then what is it? 

Is there a “super bug” going around? 

If you feel like your first cold after being in lockdown was worse than usual, you aren’t alone. “Evidence is now coming out that people have become sicker [in recent months],” Dr Helen Wall, a GP based in Bolton, tells us. 

Has social distancing changed our immune systems? 

You may have heard the theory that our colds have gotten worse because of two years of social distancing. As the theory goes, after two years of staying apart, washing hands and being careful not to spread germs, our immune systems have become weaker.

While it may be a tidy and logical theory, Wall is sceptical. “Actually, I don’t think that this is necessarily true for adults and older children,” she says. “It’s certainly true for young children.” Younger children, Wall explains, have begun to develop certain illnesses that they would usually develop in their first year – now they are catching these illnesses at age two or three because of a lack of exposure.

But it’s a different story for adults. “People who are older adults generally have already been in contact with many of these colds and coughs and colds and things. You know, your immune system doesn’t forget that after two years,” she says. “It’s not possible to erase the memory of your immune system just because we’ve been social distancing or in lockdown.” 

If social distancing isn’t changing our immune systems, why are so run down? 

The most likely culprit is stress.

“The stress of lockdown, the stress of being isolated from each other and the worries and fears everybody’s had through the pandemic – we definitely know all of that produces an array of hormones,” explains Wall. Adrenaline and cortisol (a steroid hormone) spike in times of stress. And these hormones, Wall explains, have a direct effect on our immune systems. “So, it’s not a myth when people say, ‘I’ve been a bit stressed, and so I’ve gotten ill’ – that is an actual thing that happens.”

woman in bed with a headache
If you feel like your first cold after being in lockdown was worse than usual, you aren’t alone.

Has the pandemic changed our immunity in other ways? 

“In general practice and on the frontline, as doctors, we’ve seen people’s general health has deteriorated,” Wall says. While the beginning of lockdown saw us all baking bread and buying home exercise equipment, over time, Wall thinks we’ve let our standards slip.

“People haven’t been exercising as much. In general, their weight has gone up, their blood pressure is less controlled than it was, the sales of alcohol have gone up,” she says. And, of course, a decline in overall health also impacts the immune system, leading to more severe symptoms when we catch the common cold.

How does a period of not being sick affect us psychologically? 

While Wall believes that stress is the main reason we’re all getting so run down, she thinks some people have simply forgotten what a cold feels like.

“I think you perhaps forget what a cold was like,” she says. She explains this is a phenomenon that happens a lot with physical ailments. “This is a dramatic example, but when you have a child, you think, ‘That was the most horrendous thing, and I’m not doing it again,’” she says. “A few years later, you’re back again, and you’ve kind of forgotten what it was really like. And I think there has been an element of that with patients I’ve seen lately – it feels much worse because you’re so used to being well now.”

Does health anxiety around Covid play a part? 

In the past two years, instances of health anxiety have risen dramatically. And health anxiety, Wall explains, can also contribute to the post-lockdown “super bug”.

“We’ve definitely seen a massive increase in health anxiety. And it’s not a myth that being anxious makes you sicker,” she says. “I think sometimes we write that off as a bit of an old wives tale. But being worried and being stressed makes you more overwhelmed and affects the physical mechanisms in your body. That means that your cortisol and adrenaline go all over the place. In turn, that affects your ability to get better and it increases your length of illness and your severity of illness.”

If you’re worried about the severity or length of your illness, please book an appointment with your GP and find more information on colds and the flu on the NHS website. 

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