While stress is nothing new, the Covid19 pandemic has exponentially heightened this to near breaking point for many individuals. Worldwide, stress is becoming its own kind of pandemic. For Stress Awareness Month 2021 this April, this post takes a look at the mental health toll of stress during these coronavirus times & how to manage it.
Covid19 Stress Research : A Widespread Issue
In a recent collaboration between stress.org and Huawei looking at 2000 British adults, research discovered that 65% of a them have felt more stressed since March 2020 when Covid restrictions were enforced. The three biggest areas of concern seemed to be around uncertainty, disconnection, and a disconcerting loss of control.
It’s perhaps an unsurprising finding. The pandemic has resulted in a whirlwind of emotions for many of us, running the gamut from anger and frustration, to despondency and heartache.
While we’re all living through the same pandemic, we’re very much all on different paths, having a different experience of this time.
There can be some stark contrasts: On furlough and bored at home vs taking on more work and caring duties and being too busy. Flourishing with more time for self-care and hobbies vs mental health going downhill. Mourning the loss of loved ones vs carrying on as normal. Struggling financially on reduced income vs celebrating a boost to income and savings.
In other ways, experiences can share similarities. Many of us may be subject to the same restrictions and fears and worries.
Whatever your experience has been and however you are feeling, please know that you’re not alone. There will be others out there who ‘get’ your situation, who share some of what you’re going through. No experience is identical, but at times when it can feel as though everyone else is living in a parallel universe to the one you’re in, it’s good to know that’s not the case.
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Let’s take a little look at the three areas this research has uncovered as being particularly troublesome.
There’s no denying that these are uncertain times. This is a novel virus and it has been a steep learning curve for all involved. Unfortunately the lack of trust many of us now feel in those running our countries or looking after our healthcare systems and making the big decisions makes us feel all the more sceptical and uncertain.
When the media reports different versions of the same story, we get confused. When ‘facts’ are at odds with one another, we don’t know who to believe.
With the advent of the vaccines came a rush of hope. Then doubts started to seep in, issues around production and logistics cropped up, problems around priority groups ensued. I’m personally in favour of vaccines and wrote previously about my experiences with the first Pfizer vaccination dose. However, unlike other vaccines that have had years for development and clinical trial procurement, these vaccines have had to be rushed through, making some people wary of how safe and effective they really are.
Furthermore, In the UK, the gap for the second dose was lengthened from 21 days to 3 months, which in itself was a risky move with no research to back it up. This causes more uncertainty and scepticism.
There’s been uncertainty around not just when life will go back to ‘normal’ but when all businesses will re-open, jobs will restart or children will go back to school. If the children are back in school, will they be sent back home in a few days because of another outbreak? It makes planning difficult for parents, workers, and everyone in-between.
Those with chronic illness may already face uncertainty when it comes to their health, but there may be more concerns during the pandemic with regard to accessing medical support, tests and treatment. This comes amid news of NHS waiting lists in England reaching a record high by the end of January 2021, with around 4.66 million patients waiting for hospital treatment.
A growing sense of unease is palpable. Those who are in any way vulnerable may feel this as a constant undercurrent, including those who often get left behind by our governments, like those with disabilities, the blind and sight impaired, the deaf. The pandemic is not accessible for such individuals, and while greater inclusivity has bloomed in some areas, there are so many challenges faced that it’s in painfully clear contrast to those living their lives since 2020 as though everything is normal.
So many areas of uncertainty. We want to see the brighter days on the horizon and start daydreaming about the time when we can hug our loved ones, sit in a coffee shop, attend delayed medical procedures, celebrate birthdays. We desperately want that confidence in things getting better, but there are no guarantees and no there is no certainty. But there is always hope.
Strength Through Uncertainty
Hold on to hope and nurture it. Even if it’s only the tiniest flicker, never let it go out. We don’t know what will happen next and we can’t predict any outcomes, but change is a given. You can get through this, just as you’ve got through other challenges in your life.
Try to gain a little more confidence in the situation by learning what you can about it; investigate your rights when it comes to employment, re-assess your budget if things are worrisome, speak to an advisor if you need financial support, before visiting somewhere check coronavirus what security measures they have in place, keep updated with the news but know when to take a break and step away to avoid news overwhelm.
We are creatures of habit and many of us like standing on solid ground with a degree of certainty, routine and confidence behind us. When that’s not possible, hold on to what you can; ground yourself, look to the small simple joys in the day to day, search for the good news amid the terrible, utilise distractions, and hang on.
With it being too dangerous to see family and friends, a sense of disconnection and loneliness has shrouded portions of the population. There’s also less in-person contact generally that we may not have fully appreciated before, like a passing hello to strangers, smiles at the postman, a chat with the store clerk and so on. Even the casual natter about the weather that used to seem meaningless is now noticeable in its absence.
It’s sadly nothing new for those without support systems. Many of those with chronic illness may have already seen a reduction in friends and a lack of socialising for years, too. The extra divides to society now can just reinforce this disconnection all the more.
The problem isn’t with social restrictions per se, but with that’s right and necessary. It’s not the government telling us not to meet up with other people that’s the problem; the problem is a potentially deadly virus. We can’t see friends, family or acquaintances because it’s simply not safe to do so. But it’s not just this interaction that’s being missed. We may underestimate the impact of simple gestures and communications in day to day life with those we come into passing contact with.
However, there’s no denying that we’re in a unique position in 2020 and 2021. We are fortunate to be in the modern world where technology isn’t just possible, it’s more accessible and widely available. The likes of social media and video chats have enabled people to stay connected in ways that we could never have dreamed possible even just 25 years ago.
The problem is that not everybody can afford or access this technology, and not everyone knows how to use it. I personally really feel for these people, especially as everything has gone digital during the pandemic, from registering for financial support, paying bills instead of going in to town and ordering online groceries, to booking GP appointments and Covid vaccinations. Technology also doesn’t make up for in-person communications or the human touch, the lack of which can be very distressing when you miss a loved one.
These times are also incredibly difficult when there are family members who’re vulnerable and alone, or when you’re in hospital but can’t have any visitors. It must also be a tremendously isolating experience for those who have little in the way of family or friends, and who don’t have the ability to get online either. In an increasingly internet-connected world, there are proportions of individuals who are being left out.
Use whatever tools you have at your disposal to reconnect with the world. With the blessing of online technology, we can use forums, WhatsApp, texts, phone calls, social media, Facebook groups, video chats and more, whether you’re talking to friends or strangers.
It can also be comforting to spend more time with pets if you have them and with nature, though the latter is harder if you can’t safely get outside. If you have a garden, take a few minutes when you can to sit outside, breathe in the fresh air, appreciate the scenery and be mindful. If you’re struggling, please reach out. Tell a friend or loved one how you feel. Please speak to your doctor if you need professional mental health help, or contact a charity if you just need a friendly voice to chat with.
3. Loss Of Control
We’re fighting against a virus that’s totally invisible to us. How do you protect yourself adequately from something you can’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell? We just have to do the best we can, but there’s never any guarantee it’ll be enough.
There are factions of people in each country that have been either nonchalant about the virus or have been campaigning against government restrictions for their ‘freedom’. It’s true that we’re under more control than ever before, being told what we can and can’t do. But such measures are supposed to be for the good of humanity and to save lives. It’s not the restrictions we should be frustrated with but the virus itself.
However, there are decisions being made beyond the logical restrictions that cause understandable uproar. Dealings with vaccinations for example, or even the changes being made in the US and UK to curtail opioid prescriptions for chronic pain patients. We can feel as though we have no control; we’re just one small nobody in a sea of billions and our voice will never be heard by the powers that be.
We also can’t control what others do. I know I won’t be alone in becoming apoplectic every single time I leave the house now. People that won’t wear masks, those that shove past you, customers that stand an inch behind you, people shouting across your face in the street to their friend on the other side of the road. Such things make us feel fear, anger and outrage at the ignorance, and this negativity gradually builds to boiling point.
Loss of control also comes with employment, healthcare and everything else tied to the pandemic because it all depends on the proliferation of the virus and the decisions of governments as to what happens next.
Regain Some Control
To take back a little control, we can only focus on what we can do, not what we can’t. We can only focus on what we can change, not other people we can’t.
This is where raising awareness, signing petitions, writing to MPs, or even speaking to the media to try to affect change can all come in. It’ll make you feel you’ve done your bit and you’ve made your voice heard. It could even make a positive difference and instigate change, because we’re louder and stronger together. It can also be helpful just letting off steam with a friend to release some of the pressure that builds from the emotions stemming from a disconcerting lack of control.
Do what you can to keep yourself and others safe. You might busy yourself with disinfecting groceries before putting them away, wiping down regularly used surfaces or sanitising clothing more regularly. All the small things add up.
What things can you do that are productive but also fulfilling for a sense of achievement? Work, home decluttering, digital decluttering, even re-arranging your kitchen cupboards or bookcases. Again, it’s that sense of being proactive that can help.
With work, some people are preparing for a potential shift to a new role or career path, using this time to assess the options or take on new learning credentials. With healthcare, get your ducks in a row; organise your medical information and test results, write to specialists, chase up appointments, research your conditions and sketch out other possible avenues to explore.
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The mixture of these three particularly prevalent points found in the research prevalent are all interrelated. Uncertainty, disconnection & loss of control can affect many of us to different degrees. As time goes by and emotion builds, we’re taken to the precipice of overwhelm and stress.
I don’t need to write here how detrimental stress is to our mental and physical health. Everyone knows. Reducing stress is another matter entirely. Having strategies to nurture our wellbeing and practice self-care are very important, but often they can be harder to do when we need them the most. Try to put yourself and your wellness at the top of your priorities, at least from time to time. For those of you looking after others, remember that you need to take care of yourself, too.
I struggle with stress quite considerably in recent years, and while I can probably write 10 pages on excellent stress-relief techniques, I do a lousy job ever applying them to myself. I’ve felt incredibly stressed during this pandemic with more things to do but I can’t keep up because of my health and pain so I’m forever behind and frustrated; I’ve had so little time that my mental health has gone by the wayside entirely. Please don’t be like me. Please pay attention to your mental health, look after yourself and reach out for professional support from your doctor if you need it. Rest, recuperate, celebrate small wins and savour simple joys in the day to day.
Let go of what you can’t control, but empower yourself to affect change by focusing on the things you can do.
Have you felt your stress levels rise during the pandemic for any particular reasons? Have you spent more time to look after your mental health as a result?