Two months into the pandemic, it’s hard to remember what life used to be like. Was there really a time when we thought nothing of popping into the supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner? Did we really once meet up with friends, sit close to them at restaurants, hug them goodbye? Remember when crowded trains were a minor irritation and not the stuff of nightmares? Memories have become hazy and reality warped now that life has blurred into a haze of nonstop worries. Stress is changing the way we think and experience the world, and it could be doing damage to our bodies, too.
When you are under stress, the body reacts by releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Short-term, these help you deal with intense situations by heightening your awareness and giving you the capacity to respond quickly to changes in your environment.
In small doses, then, stress helps you adapt to dangerous situations. But prolonged stress can be problematic, causing a number of physical and mental changes.
That’s why it’s critical to recognize the long-term effects of stress and know what to do about them.
Physical effects of chronic stress
Some of the physical effects of chronic stress include headaches, heartburn, stomachaches, a racing heart and rapid breathing. Over an extended period of time, chronic stress can also lead to increased risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and a weakened immune system.
If you’ve been having a lot of headaches or stomachaches over the last seven or eight weeks, or if your heart has been racing for no good reason, stress may be to blame.
Mental effects of chronic stress
Long-term stress can induce or exacerbate depression and anxiety. It has also been linked with difficulty concentrating and memory loss. Over a long period of time, people can become habituated to it: Their brains will learn to tune a particular stressor out while also becoming hypersensitive to different types of stressors, especially those that are unpredictable or severe.
Strategies for alleviating chronic stress
Strategies for handling chronic stress include getting regular physical activity, practising mindfulness and staying connected with others. Although this sounds simple in theory, finding the time and mental space to practice self-care is enormously difficult in practice—especially if you are one of the millions of Americans dealing with a maddening cocktail of unemployment and homeschooling your kids or are worried about your health because you are at a higher risk for COVID-19-related complications.
Practising self-care may seem trivial, or it may seem hopelessly out of reach right now, but it’s critical to alleviating the effects of stress. Going for a short walk or doing a few callisthenics or spending a few minutes talking to a friend on the phone or via video chat or even just taking a few moments to sit and breathe deeply may not seem like much, but it will help. If you have the means, different forms of therapy, including cognitive behavioural therapy, can help you get a handle on your negative behaviours and thought patterns.
Our stressors aren’t going away anytime soon. These practices can help you manage the fallout from everything we’re going through.