How to Cope With the Chronic Stress of COVID-19

How to Cope With the Chronic Stress of COVID-19

Yesterday I heard an interview with the head of emergency services for a large Texas hospital and one of the things he talked about was the difference in his staff’s attitude between March, when everyone pulled together, working long hours to fight their way through what they thought would be a short, terrible crisis, and now, when fatigue is starting to set in. To paraphrase, he said something like, “It’s hard to work for a short time beyond capacity, but turns out to be even harder to work for a long time just barely below capacity.” The human systems of his hospital weren’t designed to run at 95 percent capacity for months and months. In the same way, humans weren’t designed to live with chronic stress.

Study after study after study (and many more) show that while the short-term challenge of acute stress can actually be good in many cases, spurring people to perform their best, the long-term effects of chronic stress are associated with both mental health problems like depression, and also physical health problems like cardiovascular disease and decreased immune function. Even asthma attacks, which seem like such an obvious result of acute stress, are more likely in people who are experiencing high baseline chronic stress.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we would all say we’re “stressed out.” And with the uncertainty of the pandemic along with it’s certain effects on society and on our daily lives, how could we not be? But like the fatigue of healthcare workers spending long hours at hospitals operating at 95 percent capacity, living indefinitely with the chronic stress of COVID-19 threatens to wear us all down. For some, this expresses itself as mask fatigue or in poor decision-making around social distancing. For others, this looks like a gnawing fear that affects their every action (whether they realize it or not!).

To cope with this pandemic stress, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends reducing the stress of the unknown by equipping yourself with the knowledge of what to do if you get sick, for example knowing which hospital to go to and understanding what treatment would look like. The CDC also recommends taking breaks from the news and connecting with the people you care about. Johns Hopkins University offers guidelines specifically for parents working with their children’s stress, including listening, providing accurate information, and focusing on prevention. “It’s important to validate feelings of worry and not dismiss them outright,” the university writes. Yale University adds trying to keep up with daily routines (or make new ones) and limiting screen time.

The fact is that we’ve gone on about as long as we can without dealing with the effects of COVID-19 stress. But it’s been like water leaking through cracks in a dam: There’s only so long we can hold back the ill effects. As individuals, the ways we cope with chronic stress may differ, but no matter the strategies you use, it’s become increasingly important to choose some strategies instead of just trying to wish away the chronic stress. Now is the time to shore up our mental and emotional health so that we are equipped to exist in a world that may never be quite the same as it was before the pandemic, perhaps a new, more stressful world.