If stress is an essential feature of modern life, the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded and exacerbated its impacts. In an American Psychological Association study published last October, 63 percent of U.S. adults reported stress due to pandemic-related uncertainty. In that same survey, nearly a third reported feeling so overwhelmed by the pandemic that they struggled to make even minor decisions, while about half said planning for the future seemed virtually impossible.
As the pandemic ebbs towards endemic levels, related transitions now yield yet more stress. From monitoring the potential threat from new variants to navigating new arrangements at work and home, Americans are confronting uncertainty and change on a near-daily basis.
Stress frequently manifests physically, and bodily discomfort is often the first overt signal of stress we recognize. Stress-related physical sensations include elevated heart rate, rapid or labored breathing, muscle tension, nausea, and disruptions to appetite and sleep. These symptoms reflect a body prepared for action. Anxiety triggers our fight-or-flight response, even in the absence of any direct threat.
Unfortunately, the cumulative impact of sustained stress can lead to chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and diabetes. Indirect physical impacts are equally concerning. When stress prompts individuals to cope through substance use or over-eating, the medical ramifications can be severe.
The psychological consequences of chronic stress can include mood swings, irritation, loneliness or isolation, brain fog, and low self-esteem. Untreated stress can also cause feelings of depression or crippling anxiety, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please reach out to your Atrius Health provider, who can connect you with the right resources.
Occasional stress and anxiety are not inherently harmful. In fact, they can be critical in motivating achievement and prompting positive change. Yet living in a constant state of high stress is not merely unpleasant; it may compromise our present and future well-being.
While eliminating stress entirely is neither feasible nor desirable, there are many effective ways to manage and control it. The key is to identify practical strategies that work for your lifestyle. In advising patients experiencing stress, we strive to suggest achievable adjustments rather than unrealistic ideals.
An important initial step is identifying your stress triggers. It’s nearly impossible to lower your stress until you figure out what’s causing it. Maybe you need to turn off the news at night or set boundaries around working hours while working from home. Perhaps certain activities you once enjoyed, like eating at restaurants, going to concerts, or traveling, continue to feel unsafe.
Here, self-reflection is essential. To find the root of your stress, make time to honor your own experience. Doing things like journaling or talking to a licensed professional can help you figure out your triggers and plan ways to cope.
Meditation is also a proven and increasingly popular means to reduce stress. Try scheduling a few minutes into your workday for meditation or simply detach from your computer, phone, and other demands on your attention. We’ve all felt overwhelmed while adapting to changing work expectations, and taking time for yourself during the day can help you recenter and move forward more productively. Research shows that those who practice meditation are better at coping with stress and anxiety. Meditation has also been shown to improve brain function, concentration, and attention. A variety of high-quality mobile applications can help you develop your meditation practice, including Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, and Balance.
Focusing on your breathing can also help reduce stress in a few ways. It can signal your body to calm down while also encouraging mindfulness and relaxation. Next time you become overwhelmed with stress at home, in the office, or at a large gathering, try taking long, measured breaths to counteract the short, shallow breathing that often comes with anxiety. If possible, focus on drawing air into your belly while keeping your chest relatively stable. Another valuable technique is exhaling for a slightly longer period than you inhale, which can activate the body’s relaxation response.
Committing to a healthy lifestyle and creating a structured daily routine are other great ways to reduce stress on a regular basis. Being consistent with your sleep schedule, eating habits, and physical activity can elevate your mood and reduce stress. You wouldn’t drive your car on an empty gas tank, so you can’t expect to live fully if you aren’t giving yourself time to recharge.
This is true now more than ever. Many people are transitioning back to a work commute, which can be incredibly taxing. Whenever possible, practice self-care and relaxation activities that you enjoy, such as taking a nice bath, going on a gentle walk after work, practicing yoga, or painting.
Prescription medication can be very helpful for many people experiencing pandemic-related anxiety. There are multiple medications that work to reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression, but not every medication will work for everyone. For many Atrius Health patients, the process of considering medication begins with a supportive conversation with your primary care physician. Your provider can help you explore the relative benefits of various options and help you find the best choice for your symptoms.
Finally, avoid adding self-judgment about stress to your current challenges. In our ever-evolving pandemic experience, stress is an entirely understandable response – not an indication of weakness or cause for embarrassment. As COVID-19 restrictions ease and new ways of living become possible, stress will naturally accompany many of these transitions.
Remember that there is no single “right” way to deal with stress, and everyone adapts to stressors in distinct ways. However, we need not bear the burden of stress alone. If you believe that additional support might be helpful in managing your stress, your Atrius Health provider will welcome the opportunity to discuss your experience and possible solutions.