Chronic Stress in the COVID-19 Era

June 21, 2020   •  Posted in: 

As the pandemic associated with the Coronavirus continues, it is normal to feel increasing amounts of stress. Insecurity about your job, an over-saturation of information, some of it conflicting, fear of catching the virus, stress of being cooped up over a long period of time without a social release. 

But over time, that stress can take a heavy toll – both physically and emotionally. 

Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress

Acute stress is short-term stress. Chronic stress is long-term stress. Acute stress examples include being stuck in traffic during a snowstorm, an argument with your spouse, or losing a driver’s license. While the stress associated with these events are very real, they are generally fleeting and you likely don’t feel the effects of them after a short period of time. 

Chronic stress results from prolonged, continuous emotional pressure or duress where you feel you have little or no control to correct or improve your environment. The COVID-19 pandemic is a classic breeding ground for chronic stress. 

Chronic stress involves the response of your endocrine system. It releases corticosteroids, a stress-response hormone,  into your body. This response can be healthy in the short-term response, enabling you to cope and function during stress. 

But long-term exposure to stress can create a high level, ongoing release of these hormones. And that is not healthy. Over time, results can be high blood pressure and, if not rectified, heart disease. Other physical reactions include suppression of the immune system, which is not what you want anytime, but especially during a pandemic. 

Chronic Stress and Mental Health

It should go without saying that chronic stress can have a profound and negative impact on your mental health. Your body and your mind were created to handle a certain amount of strain or tension. But what happens to a cord when you increase the tension? Even though the cord is designed with a certain amount of give, at some point that cord will break.

You were created with a stress response meant to help you recognize and escape danger. But you were not created to stay stuck in that stress response. Being stuck produces the danger of breaking down physically and/or psychologically.

Chronic stress can be debilitating, robbing you of your energy, confidence and joy. Recent polls are showing over half the population is concerned that they or a loved one will catch the Coronavirus. Even before COVID-19. 75% of Americans said they experienced a notable stress event in the previous month. 

Coronavirus is a new stressor that was not even on our radar screen four months ago. And today, half of Americans are very concerned about it – on top of the record levels of stress and anxiety our society was already feeling. For the mental health industry, it is akin to a “perfect storm.” 

In my recent book Six Steps to Reduce Stress, I talk about the importance of transitioning from a “stress-full” life to a “stress-less” life. In today’s society, and especially with the possibility of COVID-19 impacting our lives for a while, we must find ways to consistently de-stress our lives. If we cannot, our society will likely see a dramatic increase in physical and medical health issues, and increased pressure and deterioration of familial, professional and social relationships. 

Four Easy Tips To Reduce Chronic Stress

In Six Steps to Reduce Stress, I present six simple and effective tips to reduce stress. Here, I’m providing easy-to-implement actions you can use today and every day to help maintain a less stressful mental state:

Be purposeful about relaxing. Create a warm, comfortable space for yourself. Create quiet time to reflect, pray, be grateful. Do you have a messy house that stresses you, and you don’t even know where to begin? Create a plan that you can execute, is realistic and one you can do. For example, choose one room at a time. Write down what you want to accomplish – get all dirty clothes off the floor and in the laundry room, and do two loads today. Tomorrow, clean the tub, toilet and sink in the bathroom.

If you have a spouse or partner, share your desire to reduce stress in your life. Help them, and ask them to help you. Do activities or listen to music that you enjoy.

Consider a mobile app that has sleep stories, calming music, and activities to relax the mind. There are many good ones available for no or modest cost. 

Remind yourself you get to control your thoughts. Use your self-talk to reinforce relaxing thoughts. “I’m going to be calmer today.” “I’m going to smile and appreciate fun little subtleties in my life.” “I’m going to send a note to a friend or loved one and tell them I appreciate them.” “I’m going to avoid the news channel that stresses me.” 

When you find yourself reverting to negative thoughts, stop yourself. Tell yourself “I get to choose my thoughts,” and pivot to positive ones. 

Practice letting comments or actions that normally cause you stress to roll off your back. This can actually be easy, if you let yourself be graceful. Imagine a comment or an aggressive driver impacting your day with a biting comment or cutting you off in traffic. You get to choose how you respond. It is normal to feel your blood pressure rise. Let that be your trigger to activate your inner voice, 

“I’m not going to let others impact my happiness and stress level. If I did something to inadvertently irritate them, forgive me. If they were in the wrong, relax and let it pass. If I feel I must address a biting comment, I can deal with it later when both of us are calm.” But you have to practice this “habit” of de-escalation so it can become muscle memory for you.  

Take 10 purposeful, deep, consistent breaths to start your day. Do the same before you go to bed. This exercise establishes a habit pattern for you that says, “Relaxation is important to my mental health, and I’m going to start and end my day with a purposeful exercise to reinforce the importance of this in my life. 

It also signals your body’s nervous system to be calm. Deep, stomach breathing is associated with a relaxed, calm state. Your body recognizes that. Deep breathing introduces more carbon dioxide to enter your blood.  More carbon dioxide quiets parts of the brain like the amygdala. That’s the area of your brain that handles your anxiety response. More carbon dioxide helps synchronize your breathing and heartbeat, a state your body recognizes as being more relaxed.

There is HOPE

These are challenging times for many of us. But there truly is hope. You have the tools to de-stress your life. If you are struggling and these tips do not seem to be helping, please know that chronic stress is treatable. The Center has a specific program to address chronic stress. To learn more about whether a treatment program is right for you or your loved one, call our admissions team at 888.771.5166.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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