If you’re more tired than usual, find yourself overly irritable, and/or can’t seem to concentrate, you may be suffering from low-level chronic stress.
Chronic stress differs from acute stress, which comes from a sudden event such as the death of someone close or the loss of a job or relationship. But acute stress can lead to chronic stress.
With COVID-19, we may encounter acute stress, but the pandemic creates chronic stress as well. When so many of our questions go unanswered, we operate with less certainty. And our minds work overtime to try to figure out answers and adapt.
So is it any wonder we’re feeling exhausted?
We wonder how long the pandemic will last. And how long will our lives be upended? Financial hardships create additional uncertainty and stress. Plus, our routines have changed. And our relationships look different. And we’re still sorting out or creating new routines.
These new ways of being keep us feeling unsteady.
And that can show up as chronic stress.
Recognizing Chronic Stress
Stress is a biological response to challenging situations, causing the body to release several hormones, not just cortisol. A dangerous situation or work deadlines can create a stress response. And so can positive stress, such as the birth of a child. The stress response helps us survive – engaging our body and senses so we can respond to challenges. And in many cases, the physical effects of stress typically don’t last long.
But chronic stress is a near-constant state of heightened alertness. It puts pressure on the body for a longer time, creating a higher risk for illness. And while stress affects every body, its symptoms and severity vary from person to person.
Signs of chronic stress, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Increased use of alcohol, drugs, and other substances.
And if not managed, long-term stress can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep and reproductive systems. So stress affects the whole body.
Managing Chronic Stress
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests ways to mitigate chronic stress.
First, be self-aware. Notice the changes you’re experiencing in your body and mind. Are you having trouble sleeping, or do you get angry more easily? Or are you sleeping more than normal? What has changed?
Talk to your health care provider. Your doctor can help with your mental health as well. And this link gives tips for how to start the conversation.
Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of brisk, moderate-intensity walking can boost your mood and improve your health. And the 30 minutes don’t have to be all at one time.
Try a relaxing activity. Meditation, breathing exercises and other mind-body practices can help relieve stress.
Set goals and priorities. So what must get done now? And what can wait?
Stay connected. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help.
And seek help immediately if you have suicidal thoughts. Call the confidential, toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And access information here on Emotional Well-Being During the Covid-19 Outbreak.
Shevaun Neupert, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, studies the way people cope with stress. And she says it’s possible to be pro-active about coping with stress before, during and after a stressful situation.
During the pandemic, as with other stressful situations, she says, each person should try out several coping strategies. Every person and situation is a bit different, requiring an individual approach, not a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Try to make a plan that can help you cope with your own unique situation, and remember to live in the moment when those stressful events arise,” she says.
So what helps you manage your stress? Which strategies seem to be working best for you now? Spend a few moments reflecting and creating your next step to a healthier you.
Hi! I’m Amy, an integrative health coach, offering grace and space for a healthier you. I help people create and sustain new habits that can improve their overall health and well-being. Click here if you’d like to work with me through coaching, and subscribe to my Well Check emails here.