Struggling with ‘pandemic stress’?
The pandemic has been putting us under strain for almost two years now. That’s a long time to be experiencing the fear and uncertainty that can come from not knowing what’s around the corner, and trying to keep up with the latest information, rules and guidelines.
Government announcements requiring us to make major adjustments to how we live have often been fairly last-minute, while the need to make our own decisions about how to stay safe brings another pressure. It’s still difficult to plan, even for something as simple as a family dinner or theatre trip; and we’ve just been through another Christmas when our hopes and expectations were in jeopardy. Some people have significant financial worries to contend with on top of this, especially those working in sectors such as hospitality.
These are conditions in which stress can really thrive. “We’re in a constant state of hypervigilance, looking out for threats and risks,” explains Daniella Doon-Joseph, a cognitive behaviour therapist with Ieso. “We’re always thinking: ‘Will we be able to do this? If we do, will we enjoy it? What additional steps – such as testing – should we take?’ There’s also a lot of information coming at us, all the time, and it keeps changing. The kind of prolonged stress this can cause isn’t good for us.”
So what is it stress? How do we recognise the signs, and how do we deal with it?
Stress is the body’s way of protecting you from a perceived threat. If your brain senses you could be in danger, it releases a flood of stress hormones to prepare your body for what it might need to do, putting you in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Your heart beats faster, your muscles tighten and your blood pressure rises. Your senses become sharper, and your strength and stamina increase.
This is helpful in a life-threatening situation, or when you’re under pressure. It’s much less helpful if your body is reacting this way on a frequent basis.
“Lots of people have been in ‘fight or flight’ mode for a good while now,” continues Daniella Doon-Joseph. “This can lead to becoming stuck in a state of heightened stress, which can have a negative impact on our relationships, mood, health and wellbeing.”
Stress can involve physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms. You might feel:
- Overwhelmed, anxious or nervous, or unable to ‘switch off’
- Drained, down, depressed or weepy
- Irritable, impatient or aggressive
- A lack of interest or enjoyment in things
- Bothered by negative or self-critical thoughts, like ‘I can’t cope’ or ‘I should be dealing with this better’.
Physical signs could include:
- Tense muscles
- Problems falling or staying asleep
- Shallow breathing or hyperventilating
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Feeling sick or dizzy
- Racing or thumping heart
- Wobbly legs
Behaviours to look out for include:
- Struggling to concentrate, or to make decisions
- Eating too little or too much
- Becoming easily irritated with people, or withdrawing from company
- Worrying more than usual
- Procrastinating, or avoiding tasks and problems
- Drinking more caffeine or alcohol.
These feelings, thoughts, symptoms and behaviours can end up becoming a ‘vicious cycle’, with one leading to another.
We can’t always change our circumstances – but we can manage our response. There are actions we can take to help ‘quieten down’ the stress response, including breathing exercises, practicing yoga, regular exercise, taking a brisk walk when we’re experiencing symptoms, building a good support network with friends and family, and learning relaxation and mindfulness techniques.
As the pandemic continues, Daniella Doon-Joseph highlights the importance of seeking out positive experiences, and carving out time and space to process what’s going on.
“Many of us are doing less of the things we find fulfilling and meaningful,” she says. “At the same time, our brain might be taking in more negative information, such as news about the number of cases. This will push us further into threat mode, and send our stress levels higher. The way we react when we’re under constant stress can take us away from our values, the person we want to be, and the life we want to be living. We can refocus on what matters by being aware of how we’re behaving, reacting and thinking, and making an effort to be compassionate to ourselves and to others.”
If the symptoms of stress are interfering with your daily life, CBT will help you understand how your thoughts, feelings and behaviours are connected, and equip you with practical techniques for coping with the difficulties you’re experiencing. Find out more about how CBT works here.