May 1, 2020

Unfamiliar Nature of Pandemic Dials Up Chronic Stress

The word “unprecedented” turns up in many analyses of the current pandemic, whether it refers to the number of COVID-19 cases, the impact on the economy or the changes to people’s lives as they try to adjust. The fact that we have never seen a situation quite like this one creates a particular kind of stress.

Research has shown that humans use past experiences to predict the future, and when they are unable to rely on that experience to gauge what may happen, they experience greater stress. Humans are wired to prefer even something unpleasant over uncertainty. Being unable to predict what will happen takes its toll on people, and current numbers tell the story.

A survey shows prescriptions filled for antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications have increased by 21 percent between mid-February and mid-March. Providers of telemedicine services for mental health services report spikes in appointments, easily doubling the demand for some vendors. As regulators and insurance plans have relaxed rules about how online therapy is conducted, its use has escalated.

Stress Load Varies by Population

It’s important to take seriously the chronic stress most Americans are feeling and manage it. Research shows that chronic stress can seriously erode physical and mental health. Prolonged stress can worsen a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, a weakened immune system, heart disease, insomnia, depression and anxiety. Those with issues in substance use and social isolation are at additional risk right now.

As always, the pain of this is falling unequally on various populations, with society’s most vulnerable getting the worst of it. Those Americans struggling with basic SDOH, including the elderly, those with multichronic conditions, the seriously mentally ill and those experiencing homelessness, are being hit the hardest. A lack of health literacy and distrust of the healthcare system will complicate efforts to help. Those with housing and food instability will soon have plenty of company among those who were just scraping along.

Tolerance and Acceptance

Americans with a lighter stress load can better manage their situations by developing a tolerance for uncertainty and focusing on things they can control. Strategies experts recommend for this include:

  • Cultivating mindfulness
  • Structuring our lives (staying on a schedule)
  • Talking about their stress with someone they trust
  • Accepting instead of resisting uncertainty

These experts hasten to point out that acceptance of uncertainty is an empowered and active state, not “giving up” or becoming resigned. It’s being grounded in the moment.

There’s nothing pretty about what’s happening, but adopting some of these tactics can strengthen people for the future. Looking hard for the positives can help manage stress and bring hope.