How to Handle Long-term Stress During Stressful Times (Like a Pandemic)
This is a very stressful time.
If you’re like everyone else, your life has been turned completely upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you’re an essential worker, your job is particularly stressful right now. If you aren’t an essential worker, you’re likely staying home and avoiding other people. You may be trying to work from home…and you may be home-schooling your kids at the same time.
Perhaps you’re worrying about what would happen if you or a loved one got sick. Then there’s the economy, and the radical change to your usual routines.
Every single bit of this pandemic is disruptive and unsettling, and adds up to long-term stress. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t handle long-term stress very well.
Short-term stress vs. long-term stress
Our prehistoric ancestors lived in an environment full of danger. As a result, the human body evolved to respond quickly to threats of the short-term variety.
When under short-term stress, your body releases the hormones epinephrine and cortisol. These hormones stimulate the liver to produce more glycogen for quick energy. This is what’s called the “fight or flight” response.
Once the crisis is over (e.g. you’ve successfully fought off the tiger or have successfully run away), your body goes back to normal. But what if the stress keeps going on and on? For weeks or months or longer?
Unfortunately, your body reacts the same way in response to long-term threats as it does to short-term threats. But the effects become negative over time, and can result in the following:
- Tension headaches and migraines from being in a constant state of readiness.
- Excess glucose production that can cause diabetes over time.
- Inhibited production of thyroid-secreting hormone.
- A compromised and run down immune system (which is not good during a pandemic)
- Imbalances in testosterone, estrogen, and other hormones.
- More rapid cellular aging.
On top of these physical effects, many people respond to long-term stress with poor eating and sleeping habits and increased use of alcohol or drugs….making a bad situation even worse.
What can you do?
We’ve established that long-term stress is unhealthy. But…we can’t always wave a magic wand and make it go away.
We can, however, learn to manage long-term stress more effectively so we can minimize its harmful effects. Here are some ideas:
- Regular exercise
- Proper rest
- Eat right
- Stay connected
- Keep on schedule
- Learn de-stressing techniques
During exercise your body releases endorphins (also known as the “feel good” hormones). Endorphins increase your feelings of well-being and help you to maintain a positive attitude.
We know…you can’t go to the gym right now. But that’s OK. Just go for a brisk walk or break out that old jump rope. Ride your bike or use your body weight for resistance training. And many personal trainers now offer online workouts if you need something with a little more intensity.
Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. Stress takes a lot out of your body and mind…sleep gives you a chance to repair the damage.
If you can, it’s a good idea to maintain your sleep schedule the same as it was “before”. This sends your body the message that things are under control and helps limit the stress response.
At times of stress (like now) your body needs good nutrition more than ever. It’s okay to indulge in a little junk food…but don’t let it replace well-balanced meals.
Since you’re probably spending more time at home than before, take advantage of it! Turn at least one meal each day into an event, whether you’re at home alone or surrounded by family.
The only thing worse than long-term stress is feeling isolated while you deal with it. So reach out to the people in your circle! Text, email, video chat, and social media are all good ways to stay in touch.
Sometimes it helps just to remind ourselves we’re all dealing with this pandemic together…even though we have to physically stay apart.
If you’re working from home or you’re trying to home-school your kids (or both), a daily schedule helps keep things feeling “normal”, which keeps your mind and body out of stress mode.
Yoga, meditation and deep breathing are just a few techniques you can use to manage your stress and stay centered. Plus, learning any of these keeps your mind focused on something positive…rather than the things you’re stressing about.
The stress on all of us during the current pandemic…and the related economic and social effects…will be with us for a while. Learn to manage this stress in a positive way and your mind and body will reap the benefits.