2020 was a remarkably stressful year. For some, it’s even been described as a never-ending dumpster fire.
A rapidly spreading virus, job losses, countless lives lost, political and racial tensions, isolation … and so forth, and so on. While just one of these would be enough to stress us out, many of us have been confronted with all of them this year.
“Stress occurs when we feel we don’t have the resources to meet the challenges we’re facing,” said Marisa Menchola, PhD, a neuropsychologist with Banner Health in Tucson, AZ. “We often feel this way in situations that are unpredictable and that we can’t control. And COVID-19 is this invisible, uncontrollable, scary thing out there we can’t control.”
The pandemic is an unfortunate example of a chronic stressor. We are constantly facing stressful situations—even situations that used to be normal are now stressful: Is my child’s cough just allergies or COVID-19? Why is my co-worker out sick? Is it COVID? Should I say something to the person standing behind me in line not wearing a mask?
To make matters even worse, the pandemic has also robbed us of many important ways we typically cope with stress and experience joy, like socializing with friends, going to the movies or attending our children’s sporting events and school functions.
According to a survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA), Americans have been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to all the other previously existing stressors. Nearly 80% of adults said the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life, and half reported experiencing a physical or emotional toll from stress. Children, adolescents, and young adults also reported more significant levels of stress in response to the pandemic than adults and seniors. This led the APA to conclude that “we are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”
What chronic stress does to our bodies
Thanks to evolution, our bodies have adapted to respond quickly to stressful situations, both physical and emotional. Many of us call this our fight-or-flight response. In the early stages of the pandemic, our fight-or-flight response was doing what it was supposed to do to help us stay alert and focused. But fast forward a year later, this constant stress is taking a toll on us, which may be why we’re feeling more anxious, worried, sick and downright in the dumps (no pun intended).
“Usually, when we’re faced with a stressor (say, your boss asks you to make an important presentation in 2 hours), our stress response system launches a biological response, and then helps return our body’s systems to their baseline,” Dr. Menchola said. “However, when there is chronic stress, the long-term activation of our stress response system disrupts almost every process within our body.”
Just imagine your body as an A/C unit. It’s designed to turn on as needed to keep your house cool. But if left continually running 24/7 for days, weeks or months, it’s going to break down. In our case, this breakdown occurs mentally, physically and emotionally.
In terms of mental health, you may develop symptoms of anxiety, depression or memory or concentration problems. You may try to deal with stress by becoming more rigid, trying to control every minor aspect of your life. Or you may just “give up” and become careless, irresponsible or sloppy. These experiences can also trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You might develop anxiety, panic attacks, unreasonable fears, or even phobias or OCD-type behaviors. You might start avoiding every reminder about the pandemic or pretending it isn’t happening at all. You might feel depressed, hopeless, irritable and short-tempered, or experience another common emotional symptom of post-traumatic stress, which is numbness—you feel “nothing,” not positive emotions like joy or pleasure, and not negative emotions like fear or anger either.
“People with post-traumatic symptoms also often feel disconnected from others, even those they are close to, and may have negative thoughts about others, the future or the world, in general” Dr. Menchola said. “If you say things like, ‘People are awful’ or ‘This will never get better’ or ‘There is only suffering in this world,’ you might be experiencing post-traumatic stress.”
When we are chronically stressed, our immune system, much like an overstrained AC unit, starts to misfire and not function as well. You may develop headaches, unexplained rashes, stomach pains, muscle tension and other pain. Chronic stress and poor mental health can contribute to a range of long-term physical health problems as well, including:
- digestive problems
- new respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath, or worsening of pre-existing asthma or COPD
- cardiovascular symptoms, like heart palpitations and elevated blood pressure
- abnormal immune system responses
- sleep problems
- hair loss
- weight loss or gain
It’s important to note that if you have a pre-existing medical condition, like depression, anxiety, a history of substance abuse or addiction, or a chronic medical condition, chronic stress might put you at higher risk of developing mental or physical symptoms again or worsening of problems.
Extinguish chronic stress and improve your health in 2021
Chronic stress affects our bodies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t snuff it out and better your overall health. There are a number of simple life hacks, such as protecting your sleep, practicing relaxation exercises and eating healthy, that can help reduce stress and naturally boost energy and wellbeing.
[For helpful tips, check out “6 Tips for Boosting Your Energy Naturally”]
In addition to caring for our bodies, there are a number of other actions we can take that can lower our stress levels and help us stay mentally strong.
- Keep your day predictable: Stick to a daily routine as much as you can. This can be as simple as waking up a half-hour earlier so you can keep having your morning coffee in silence before the rest of the family gets up or continuing to have Friday pizza and movie night.
- Focus on what you can control: You can choose to go for a walk in the evenings, turn off the news on a particularly stressful day, or say “no” to that big favor somebody asked you. Similarly, you can’t control the pandemic, or other people’s behaviors, but you can control your own behavior and limit the risks you take.
- Find moments of joy: We need positive emotions to undo the harm done by negative emotions, like stress. Often, when we are stressed, sad or afraid, we just want to stop feeling bad. But that might not be enough; we need to feel good. So, enjoy a delicious meal, laugh at a funny movie and listen to music you find uplifting. Make a point of intentionally seeking moments of joy.
- Stay connected: Continue to make time to reach out to those people in your life who support you and help you feel hopeful and energized. Even when you are exhausted, just a quick text to tell a loved one, “I’m thinking about you,” can be very meaningful.
It doesn’t hurt to ask for help
There’s no shame, especially during a global pandemic, to reach out for help from your doctor or a mental health professional if you find you are struggling under the weight of the pandemic. Consider talking to someone you trust if chronic stress:
- Starts affecting your health. You experience things like insomnia, chronic headaches or you find you’re relying on substances (nicotine or alcohol).
- Makes it hard to get through your day. You sit at your desk for hours staring at the computer and can’t concentrate or get anything done. You find yourself crawling back into bed or lying on the couch for hours in the middle of the day. You feel overwhelmed by small, routine tasks like making lunch or taking the laundry out of the dryer.
- Affects your relationships. If family or close friends tell you they’re concerned or say you don’t seem well. Or if you start snapping at your partner or children or say hurtful things you wouldn’t ever say before.
For more advice on how to manage chronic stress, schedule an appointment with a Banner Health specialist. If you need urgent help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, offers a Disaster Distress Helpline, 24/7, 365-days-a-year: 1-800-985-5990.
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- Helping Seniors with Mental Illness Cope with Pandemic Isolation