A Few Words on this Pandemic Stress

Here’s a really unhelpful statement:  Everyone is stressed out these days.

What might be helpful is a quick look at what that means and how we’re going to see that in ourselves, in the public, at home…

A predictable effect of stress is that we act and react in ways which make life more miserable for ourselves and for each other. Folks get more irritable, overreactive to little things and even to neutral things, we’ll tend to be less empathetic and compassionate, and more inclined to blame, to us-them categorize, to judge.  Crimes of ‘passion’, stupid-jerk and regrettable outbursts will increase in frequency, perhaps to great cost.  Distress will become more difficult to both tolerate and to work with – coffee mugs will be thrown, fights and f-bombs issuing like confetti. The mind suffers – poorer short term memory, broken concentration, low quality thoughts that run fast and mean.  Restorative sleep may be broken, there’s less energy, more gastro problems, muscle and joint achiness, cardiac and other physical problems can worsen.  On and on… do you see it?

Some quick science/user manual details – skip if you want.  ’Stress’ is what our body and mind do to allocate resources to deal with a real or imagined threat (hold that idea of imagined threat for a moment). The nervous system reacts to a threat within a second or two, shunting blood to the big muscles, increasing heart rate, dilating the pupils and tweaking the senses, on and on. It takes about 30 seconds for the endocrine piece to show up, for adrenaline and cortisol to hit the blood stream, making heaps of enhancements.  

This immediate, acute stress boosts performance – on your game!  Long term, chronic stress causes breakdown at all levels of the body, mind, relationships and society – you lose your edge and more!  Chronic, high levels of cortisol amplify many of our worst tendencies and magnify our private distress and suffering.  Anxiety, depression, bad habits can follow.

The primary source of stress is our human mind/brain.  Stressed minds think and run simulations relentlessly when we’re not busy or distracted by something (like at bedtime), imagining threats in the future, replaying how unfair something is, often dripping with dread, fear, anger, we get worked up and the ‘pause’ function doesn’t seem to work anymore.

So our stress isn’t our fault as such, but it is ours and so it is our responsibility.  More wine or social withdrawal and relief through distress reducing behaviours like yelling at or pushing someone aren’t terrific ways of working with stress.

The research is clear that there are many things we can do to decrease cortisol levels.  First, you have to see it.  Then, cardio-exercise, healthy diet, staying connected with people, opening up, mindfulness meditation, being kind with yourself and each other, just persistent 1% steps bring on compounding gains and form healthier habits that lead to improved resilience, hardiness and clarity.

Lee Smith, Ph.D., C.Psych.