The Impact of Lyme Disease on Mental Health: Understanding the Connection and Seeking Support

With a tiny little tick, begins a journey that can drastically alter the course of one’s life. Lyme disease is a significant public health concern that has effects far beyond its well-known physical manifestations. It also significantly impacts mental health, adding another layer to its profound influence.

There is growing recognition of the ability of the Lyme bacterium to breach the blood-brain barrier, triggering inflammation and disrupting regular brain function, resulting in various neurological and psychiatric symptoms. We will explore this aspect of Lyme disease in depth, shedding light on the significant but often overlooked mental health implications.


Understanding Lyme Disease

Every year, around 476,000 instances of Lyme disease are documented in the United States. Lyme disease is the most prevalent vector-borne disease in the U.S. It’s primarily caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, and less commonly, Borrelia mayonii. Humans contract the disease through the bite of ticks infected with these bacteria, specifically the blacklegged ticks.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease

Lyme disease can present initially with a rash around a tick bite, typically appearing within the first four weeks but can occur up to three months later. This rash can be pink, red, or purple on white skin, or look like a bruise on darker skin, and may spread over time. It’s usually not hot or itchy. Following a bite from an infected tick, some individuals may experience flu-like symptoms. This can occur a few days to weeks after the bite and can include:

  • A raised body temperature, feeling hot and shivery
  • Headaches
  • Pain in the muscles and joints
  • A sense of fatigue or depleted energy levels

Lyme Disease’s Impact on Mental Health

Lyme disease, potentially interacting with other infections within the body, can elude and suppress the immune system. It has been identified as the root cause of various mental health issues including:

  • Developmental disorders: Lyme disease can potentially interfere with normal development in children, leading to disorders like ADHD or learning difficulties. Since 1985, more than 60 sources have recorded cases of congenital transmission of Lyme disease.
  • Depression and anxiety: Lyme disease’s underdiagnosis and inadequate treatment often lead to depression and anxiety, with research showing a post-infection depression incidence of 98% compared to 0% pre-infection.
  • Schizoaffective disorder: There’s a notable geographical link in the United States between the presence of Ixodes ticks, Lyme disease, and schizophrenia. Schizoaffective disorder is often observed in patients with Lyme disease.
  • Bipolar disorder: When patients with Lyme disease exhibit bipolar disorder, it invariably manifests as rapid cycling. Reports indicate the presence of mood instability in such cases.
  • Eating and sleep disorders: Certain Lyme disease patients may initially lose weight, only to gain it back later. Instances of anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and excessive weight gain have been observed. Sleep disorders, particularly insomnia, have also been significantly associated with Lyme disease.
  • Dementia: Lyme disease can cause neurological issues leading to memory loss, confusion, and changes in personality or mood. Some research discovered that Lyme disease can lead to a quickly advancing form of dementia that primarily affects the frontal region of the brain.
  • Seizures: Neurological disruptions caused by Lyme disease can sometimes trigger seizures. The occurrence of seizure disorders is higher when there’s a significant delay in both diagnosing and effectively treating Lyme disease.
  • Suicide: The chronic pain and the emotional toll of Lyme disease can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions. Indirect estimates suggest that Lyme disease could be contributing to over 1,200 suicides annually in the United States.
  • Panic Disorder: Patients diagnosed with Lyme may experience panic attacks for the first time, which can sometimes extend for hours at a stretch.

Challenges in Diagnosing and Addressing Mental Health Symptoms Related to Lyme Disease

  • Overlapping Symptoms: Given the overlap in symptoms among patients diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and those with lingering Lyme disease symptoms, it becomes exceedingly challenging to clinically determine which individuals with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia might also be dealing with persistent Lyme disease.
  • Lack of Awareness Among Healthcare Providers: Increasing awareness about Lyme disease decreases the likelihood of overlooking or inadequately assessing and diagnosing people with Lyme disease.
  • Delayed Treatment and Limited Treatment Options: Postponing treatment may result in a widespread infection and severe complications. An extended period between the onset of symptoms and treatment, known as time-to-treatment, has been linked with unfavorable outcomes in Lyme disease patients.

Seeking Support and Strategies for Mental Health Challenges

The journey towards mental well-being amidst Lyme disease is as crucial as physical health management. Early detection and prompt treatment of mental health issues significantly contribute to improved prognosis. It is crucial to understand that Lyme disease is not merely a physical ailment but a holistic health challenge. The psychological impact can be as debilitating as the physical, affecting every facet of a patient’s life from cognitive function to emotional stability. Thus, incorporating mental health care into the treatment plan from the early stages can help to mitigate these effects.

Self-care Practices to Promote Mental Well-being

  • Prioritize Rest and Relaxation: Adequate rest and relaxation can play a pivotal role in your overall well-being, providing the body and mind with time to rejuvenate. Research indicates that periods of rest and relaxation play a key role in sustaining and enhancing overall well-being. Both are associated with sensations of tranquility, ease, physical looseness, mental unwinding, and the experience of positive emotions.
  • Maintain a Balanced Lifestyle: A balanced lifestyle including regular exercise, nutritious food, and good sleep hygiene can enhance your mental and physical health. A study published in BMC Public Health suggests that increasing healthy habits, such as ensuring adequate sleep, engaging in physical activity, and maintaining a nutritious diet, while simultaneously cutting down unhealthy practices like alcohol consumption and smoking, can enhance resilience and mental well-being in adolescents.
  • Practice Self-compassion: Be kind to yourself. Understand that it’s okay to have bad days and to take the time you need to heal. Dr. Kristin Neff suggests that the practice of self-compassion can decrease feelings of isolation and enable individuals to view their issues with a balanced perspective. It has also been demonstrated to mitigate symptoms of anxiety and depression, leading to enhanced emotional stability and improved resilience when dealing with adversities and challenges.
  • Practice Stress Management: Techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or even hobbies that you enjoy can help manage stress levels, promoting mental tranquility. Research indicates that yoga contributes to enhanced well-being, fosters a sense of relaxation, boosts self-esteem and body positivity, and improves productivity. Moreover, it can also lead to improved interpersonal relationships, heightened focus, reduced irritability, and promote a more positive perspective on life.

Building a Support Network of Friends, Family, and Healthcare Professionals

  • Communicate Openly: Be honest about your feelings and challenges with your loved ones. Open communication aids in mutual understanding and fosters supportive relationships. A study from The University of Arizona highlights that communication plays a crucial role in keeping us linked to our family and community. This sense of connection provides a sense of grounding in reality and can lessen the stress brought about by crises and everyday difficulties.
  • Seek Professional Support: Don’t hesitate to reach out to healthcare professionals. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists can provide tools and strategies to cope with mental health issues. The University of Rochester Medical Center suggests starting your journey to find a competent mental health professional by consulting your primary care physician. They are often acquainted with numerous local mental health practitioners and can provide valuable recommendations. Early intervention for mental health concerns can significantly impact the outcome, underscoring the importance of timely assistance.
  • Join Support Groups: Participating in support groups provides a platform to connect with others who are facing similar experiences, offering a sense of community and shared understanding. For many decades, support groups have served as valuable platforms in the realm of mental health, offering individuals the space to discuss challenges, exchange experiences, and share information.

The Takeaway

The impact of Lyme disease on mental health is significant, with links to conditions from depression to dementia and even suicide. Early detection and treatment are crucial to prevent escalation. Regular tick checks, immediate medical consultation if symptoms appear, and establishing a support network can help manage this disease effectively. Prevention is vital, but prompt action and management are key when prevention is not possible.

Additional Resources

Neurological Lyme disease, also known as Lyme neuroborreliosis, occurs when Borrelia Burgdoferi bacteria invade the central nervous system. Some describe neurological Lyme disease as a Lyme infection of the brain. Research has found that up to 15-40% of late-stage Lyme patients develop neurological disorders. Experts Dr. Brian Fallon and Dr. Robert Bransfield discuss.

Psychiatrist Jane Marke, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Rosalie Greenberg, as well as social worker and therapist Audrey Amir, provide medical insight along with strategies to cope. Our panelists also address frequently asked questions and seek to dispel confusion over psychiatric issues facing the community.

Blog – Recovery From Lyme // Microbes Causing Mental Illness

Dr. Dan Kinderlehrer is a physician and board-certified internist specializing in treating Lyme patients. In this introductory blog he leverages a patient case study and years of personal experience to explain the harmful nature of Lyme disease’s neuropsychiatric symptoms on people’s lives. Read the full blog here.