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Lyme disease can be a devastating diagnosis. As with any chronic illness, having Lyme disease can mean struggling with a variety of bothersome (and sometimes debilitating) symptoms. On top of having to rearrange your life around your condition, you also might find that it’s difficult to find a proper diagnosis, since many doctors are still not very knowledgeable about Lyme disease. In some cases, you might even experience minimisation or a dismissive attitude from health professionals who are ignorant about the condition. All of these aspects (along with the typical continual stressors of work, family, etc.) would be difficult for anyone to cope with. But not everyone realises that there can also be significant psychological effects of Lyme disease.
The condition itself is contracted when a person is bitten by a tick that is a Lyme carrier. Physical symptoms of Lyme disease can include a red, bullseye rash, joint and muscle pain, extreme fatigue, flu-like symptoms and more. Some people do note neurological symptoms of Lyme disease as well (such as confusion, cognitive difficulties, memory problems etc.). One family medicine doctor, Kristin Reihman (author of the book Life After Lyme), notes that a sudden onset of psychiatric symptoms can be related to an autoimmune response that occurs when antibodies are created to try fight Lyme and other co-infections, but end up going after healthy brain tissue. Although some changes in mood and sleep can correlate with the stress of dealing with a chronic illness, there is also evidence that tick-borne infections can cause a host of psychological issues. Read on to get more familiar with possible psychological symptoms of Lyme disease.
Depression is more than just a general feeling of sadness for many people. Symptoms can include:
- Feelings of hopelessness or emptiness
- Outbursts of anger or irritability
- Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities that used to be enjoyable
- Sleep disturbances (either not enough or too much sleep)
- Tiredness and lack of energy
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Slowed thinking or body movements
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt (self-blame)
Individuals suffering from depression can also have frequent or recurrent thoughts of suicide and death (which can include suicide attempts). There are people who report that feelings of depression that surface after contracting Lyme disease are much more severe than typical bouts with the condition. Feeling hopeless can be even more pronounced if a person is also struggling with their physical Lyme disease symptoms, too.
General anxiety can manifest in a number of different ways, including panic attacks, feeling nervous or tense, having trouble concentrating, and difficulty sleeping. Severe anxiety also commonly shows up in physical sensations, such as an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, feeling weak or tired, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Along with these feelings and sensations, some Lyme disease patients report their anxiety to be almost like convulsions. These involuntary movements can look like tremors, twitches or even seizures. While someone with Lyme disease can develop anxiety because of intense worry about their physical health, the disease itself might also be contributing to the appearance of these symptoms.
Lyme disease can also create sleep difficulties for people. Insomnia can appear as difficulty falling asleep, waking up often during the night and having trouble falling back asleep, waking up too early in the morning, and feeling tired upon waking. Primary insomnia means that you’re having problems with sleep that aren’t directly related to any other health condition. If you have Lyme disease, you run the risk of developing secondary insomnia, which means your sleep problems stem from another condition (like Lyme). Another issue arises because a common symptom of Lyme disease is extreme fatigue, so you might find yourself taking more naps during the day. This can then lead to disturbed sleep patterns, which can upset your night-time routine and cause even more sleep problems.
Changes in personality
Because a Lyme infection can affect your brain, you might experience some changes to your personality. You might find yourself feeling more irritable or frustrated and less able to cope with normal, everyday situations. One Lyme co-infection called Bartonella can cause people to have problems with impulse control and to sometimes experience intrusive thoughts. There are also instances of people having ‘rage attacks’, where their anger gets out of control. These outbursts might tend to come out of nowhere (which is a good indication that the infection is causing the upset, not a personality defect).
It can be extremely challenging for Lyme disease patients to maintain healthy eating habits during a time when their body is battling an infection. Many people struggle with appetite (either struggling to eat or overeating) and can experience significant weight loss or gain. Because other mental illnesses (such as depression) can cause issues with appetite, it’s common for patients with mood disturbances to have issues around eating. These issues can become severe enough that people develop eating disorders. Additionally, because Lyme patients might have food sensitivities, they can experience a great deal of anxiety around food (which can lead to restricting food intake and the development of an eating disorder).
Perhaps the scariest of all psychological symptoms of Lyme disease is psychosis. This can include having delusions and/or hallucinations, and becoming disconnected from reality. Some researchers believe that this is found in Lyme disease patients because of inflammation in the brain and the cranial nerve. It’s possible to also experience depersonalisation, where you feel detached from your own body and thoughts (which can be particularly disturbing). It’s also possible to have auditory hallucinations due to inflammation of the nerves around the ear.
For all these psychological symptoms of Lyme disease, your best option is to seek help from a mental health professional (such as a therapist or psychologist) as soon as possible. They can provide proper coping skills or ‘talk therapy’ to help minimise or alleviate bothersome psychological symptoms. If recommended by a psychiatrist, you also have the option of going on medications (such as antidepressants, sleep meds or anti-anxiety pills) to help improve your condition. Although it can be extremely scary to deal with these emotional issues, there is help available. It is possible to find a supportive therapist who can work with you to become better equipped to handle your Lyme disease symptoms and the complications that can arise in your life with this diagnosis.