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As Lyme disease continues to affect more and more people every year, researchers are beginning to look more closely at the correlation between Lyme disease and psychological disorders. The connection seems like it could be twofold: Lyme bacteria can potentially cause neurological symptoms that mimic psychological ones, and Lyme disease can also cause mental health symptoms because of its life-altering and debilitating nature. Here’s a breakdown of the correlation between Lyme disease and psychological conditions.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is the result of a bite from a tick that’s a carrier of Lyme bacteria (also known as Borrelia burgdorferi). It was first studied in the 70s, when a town of people in Lyme, Connecticut in the U.S. began exhibiting symptoms. More research has been done over the ensuing decades, leading to what we now know about Lyme as an infectious disease. Symptoms can include:
- A red, bullseye rash (typically at the site of the tick bite)
- Joint and/or muscle pain
- Extreme tiredness and fatigue
- Flu-like symptoms (including headaches, fever, chills, malaise)
- Changes in mood and appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
Because these symptoms can mimic a myriad of other medical conditions, it can be difficult for patients to get an appropriate diagnosis. However, when diagnosed early after the tick bite occurs (usually within a few weeks to a month), acute Lyme disease can be effectively treated with antibiotics. When the condition is not diagnosed and/or goes untreated for a long period of time, individuals can develop chronic Lyme disease, where they can experience much more severe symptoms that negatively affect more systems in the body.
Stronger courses of antibiotics might be an option for some, but this won’t resolve symptoms in every patient. There are also people who simply don’t respond to antibiotic treatment; researchers are still trying to discover why this occurs for patients in what is considered late-stage Lyme disease.
How is the nervous system affected by Lyme disease?
The nervous system is affected by Lyme disease because the bacteria can spread throughout the body (including in the brain). Neurological symptoms can include:
- Memory impairment or memory loss
- Cognitive difficulties (such as slowed processing of information)
- Visual/spatial processing impairment
- Issues with attention and executive functioning
- Neuralgia or neuropathic pain
- Cranial nerve disorders (such as facial palsy, double vision, hearing loss, etc.)
These symptoms can make it seem like a person is suffering from a variety of different disorders, including Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Bell’s palsy and ALS/MND. Some cognitive issues might also suggest signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia to medical professionals.
Can Lyme disease mimic certain psychological disorders?
Aside from physical symptoms, Lyme can also manifest as emotional diagnoses, such as:
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Mood swings (that can mimic bipolar disorder)
- Episodes of rage
- Psychosis (marked with hallucinations or delusions)
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviours
Some scientists believe these emotional symptoms are the sign of inflammation in the brain caused by the Lyme bacteria. More research needs to be done to definitively state whether these symptoms are specifically caused by Lyme or just coexist alongside the condition.
Can Lyme disease cause mental health issues?
Aside from the fact that Lyme might be causing organic emotional symptoms, there’s also a chance that Lyme disease is linked to co-existing psychological disorders. This is because Lyme disease is often a chronic condition that can create many challenges for a person. Having to suffer from physical symptoms (that are often painful and unbearable) is enough to create depression or anxiety in a person’s daily life. Add to that the stress from possible disruptions to work or family life because of the condition, and it’s easy to see why patients can experience significant mental distress.
If you’re wondering “Can Lyme disease cause severe anxiety or depression?”, the answer is yes. People with a Lyme diagnosis can experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety and insomnia, among a host of other emotional symptoms. Individuals with Lyme might also struggle with worsened depression symptoms in winter (also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD) or eating disorders because of the impact Lyme disease has on appetite and weight.
What can be used to relieve or lessen psychological disorders associated with Lyme?
Although dealing with psychological disorders can be challenging, there are steps that Lyme patients can take to care for themselves and their emotional health. Here are a few suggestions:
Seeing a licensed therapist or psychologist can be lifesaving. Having the chance to get professional help in developing better coping skills, or even just having someone to talk to, can be immensely valuable.
Although medication might not always be necessary, for some people it can assist with boosting mood, lessening anxiety, or improving sleep – all of which can be helpful when someone is trying to maintain a normal level of functioning.
Attending a support group for Lyme disease or mental health issues can allow a person to feel less alone in their struggle and connect them to people who are dealing with the same things they are.
Leaning on friends and family
Getting support from loved ones can help a patient feel more supported and better equipped to take on challenges in their day-to-day lives.
Meditation or mindfulness exercises
The calming practice of meditation or mindfulness can work to alleviate some emotional symptoms, as well as helping Lyme disease patients cope with physical manifestations of their condition.
Engaging in some light exercise (especially something like yoga or tai chi) can help patients feel better both physically and emotionally.
Overall, the most important thing a Lyme patient can do to help along their healing is to practise self-care. This can be something as simple as taking a walk or a nap, or getting together with a loved one.
There is a definite correlation between Lyme disease and psychological disorders. More research needs to be done to clear up whether Lyme is causing specific conditions to occur, or whether they are simply occurring alongside Lyme. No matter what, Lyme patients experiencing any emotional symptoms should alert their doctor to anything they’re noticing, and then try to focus on what they can do to take care of themselves while the symptoms persist.