- As the pandemic persists, we are increasingly seeing the effects of prolonged stress.
- Prolonged stress has negative mental, emotional, and physical effects.
- With awareness and strategic interventions, individuals and organizations can manage the negative effects of prolonged stress.
Lately, small challenges seem to be posing tremendous obstacles. I suspect this has everything to do with the stacking stress of the pandemic. After sixteen months of heightened stress, our reserves are depleted, and this is magnifying the intensity of even minor challenges. Fortunately, with awareness and the right interventions, we can mitigate the effects of prolonged pandemic-related stress.
The Impact of Stress
Most people know that stress is bad for us mentally and emotionally. Fewer people appreciate that stress is also bad for us physically. Among other things, stress elevates cortisol levels, which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, weight gain, and other potentially harmful physical conditions.
Worse yet, when we experience stress over a long period, the adverse mental, emotional, and physical effects start to stack up. People suffering from long-term stress are more likely to suffer from clinical forms of depression and anxiety. Long-term stress also has been found to impact everything from brain functioning to our immune systems. As Agnese Mariotti concludes in her 2015 article in Future Science OA, “Chronic stress appears to affect organ and system functions at multiple levels.”
So, what is the best way to manage stress in a world where stress seems increasingly inescapable?
Awareness: Identify and Acknowledge Stress
During the pandemic, stress has skyrocketed, and the reason is simple. Even simple activities we once took for granted (e.g., going to the grocery store, setting up a playdate for a child, or going to work or school in person) now require us to weigh multiple risks and make difficult decisions. The stress of assessing risk, especially as medical guidance and local conditions continue to shift, is taking its toll.
But if stress is now a regular part of our lives, isn’t it just a condition we have to accept? The answer is no. While stress may be everywhere, it isn’t helpful to normalize it. Keep working to identify stressors, even if everyone you know is facing the same stressors.
Activation: Decide What Actions You Can Take to Reduce Stress
Once you’ve identified and accepted what is elevating your stress, work to understand it. Look below the surface to determine what is triggering your high levels of stress. For example, if you have been encouraged to return to work in person, what aspects of the situation are stressing you? More importantly, what can you do to alleviate the stress (e.g., request to keep working remotely or work most of the time remotely)?
Agility Building: Determine How to Adapt and Shift Away from Stress
In the face of stress, commit to continue building the agility needed to adapt. To begin, disengage. Among other things, deep breathing can change your physiological response to stress (i.e., move you away from a fight/flight response).
Integration and Acceleration: Build Stress-Reducing Practices Into Your Daily Routine
Like it or not, some stress-management strategies we embraced pre-pandemic may no longer bring the same results they did in the past.
What did you do to manage stress before the pandemic? What have you been doing during the pandemic? Consider incorporating a walking date with a good friend, meditation, or yoga into your daily routine.
The Upside of the Pandemic
One small upside to the pandemic is that more people than ever before now recognize that stress is real and needs to be taken seriously. For some individuals, the pandemic has even provided the space, time, and urgency to start prioritizing stress management.
Most encouraging is the shift we’ve seen on an organizational level. In late August, for example, Nike announced plans to close their corporate campus for an entire week to allow employees to prioritize their mental health.
Accepting that stress is here and maybe here to stay is the first step. Next, focus on understanding stress, especially long-term stress, and finding ways to reduce its harmful mental, emotional, and physical effects.
Cay, M., Ucar, C., Senol, D., Cevirgen, F., Ozbag, D., Altay, Z., & Yildiz, S. (2018). Effect of increase in cortisol level due to stress in healthy young individuals on dynamic and static balance scores. Northern clinics of Istanbul, 5(4), 295–301. https://doi.org/10.14744/nci.2017.42103
Mariotti A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future science OA, 1(3), FSO23. https://doi.org/10.4155/fso.15.21