2020 has been traumatic and stressful. As a nation, on a small and large scale, people have been affected by insurmountable stress. In the face of a tumultuous and divisive election, and the COVID-19 pandemic we have all been taken by surprise and stressed to some degree.
In 2020 we have to some degree experienced loss of control, fear and isolation. As a result stress has inevitably become more apparent in most of our lives.
High and chronic stress is hard on the immune system, putting all of us at much higher risk for health struggles. Data is starting to show that people who belong to demographics that already face significant stress are more likely to suffer from more severe outcomes.
A COVID tracking project from Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research says that Black people are dying 2.5 times the rate of white people; this is staggering and obviously disproportionate. In addition, people of color are also more likely to suffer from the economic downturn including being laid off and possible eviction. In the midst of an economic downturn there is also the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, and historical implications not often discussed. Unfortunately, trauma lives in our bodies and the implications of chronic stress are becoming more and more apparent. The adverse effects of chronic stress have been too commonly underestimated.
Chronic stress leads to chronic disease because it wears down the body over time. While some people are experiencing extreme stress for the first time, others’ stress has just been exacerbated. Reactions to the stress of 2020 commonly include denial, more stress because of the knowledge of health risk with COVID-19, and outright reactive behavior.
There are three types of stress according to the American Psychological Association (APA):
ACUTE stress is momentary, or short term. Acute stress is triggered by high stress situations, like public speaking. Symptoms of acute stress include trong emotions, muscle tension, increased heart rate,and short or shallow breathing. Of the stress types, acute stress does not have long term affects.
WHAT TO DO Learn how to notice when you are experiencing acute stress. Observe how you feel. Do you feel agitated? Is your heart rate up? It can be helpful to take a walk or do something active when you notice agitation. Doing something active will help your mind move away from the fight-or-flight response, and bring you more ease. Your favorite music can also help to ease tension. Breathing exercises are another helpful tool that can move you from fight-or-flight to a state of ease. Simply making your exhale two seconds longer than your inhale can be incredibly effective.
EPISODIC Episodic stress takes a larger toll on the body than acute stress because it occurs more frequently. Episodic stress commonly occurs in people who are moving from one stressful environment to another.
WHAT TO DO Change your routine and stay consistent. Determine what parts of your life are most stressful and begin to make small changes to support your health. What can you give up? Can you reach out to someone in your network for support?
Prioritizing your self-care routine is a vital part of overcoming the cycle of stress. Go on walks, take baths, listen to music, write in a journal, drink tea, exercise, eat well. While all of these may not be feasible, consistently practicing two or three can be invaluable to your overall well being.
With episodic stress it is important to take a step back, and sometimes changing your mind changes everything. If there is enough overwhelm everything can start to seem stressful. When everything becomes acute stress, it is time to reevaluate.
CHRONIC The APA defines chronic stress as constant stress over a prolonged period of time. Living or constantly dealing with tumultuous situations including relationships, career, racism, and trauma consistently floods the body with stress hormones. This is when emotional health concerns may arise, along with trouble sleeping, reduced immune system function, and strain on the cardiovascular system. Any or all of these can lead to anxiety and depression.
WHAT TO DO This is when setting boundaries is vital. Take stock of what is contributing to your overwhelm and begin to seek and welcome in support. Make one health related commitment to yourself. Where can you cut back or what can you add to your diet to support good health? Are you exercising your right to say no? Be sure you are eating right and sleeping well. HAVE GRATITUDE.
Here is the shortlist of what you can do to deal with the effects of chronic stress:
Create a routine
Open up about your experience, it will help you realize there is nothing to be ashamed of.
Make a nice meal
Take a bath