If you’ve browsed social media at all in the past few months, you’ve almost certainly seen several people joking and posting memes about how 2020 has been the worst year. While the jokes make people laugh, they also speak to something many people are experiencing this year: chronic stress at emergency levels.
As a country, we’re dealing with several major crises at once, including COVID-19, the economic collapse, and civil unrest. But it’s not just the sheer number of issues we’re dealing with that has us all stressed out; it’s also the length of time and the lack of end in sight.
1) The Natural Ability to Cope with Crises
Emergencies and disasters have been part of human life since the beginning–much longer than we have been dealing with the novel coronavirus. Natural disasters, health scares, and accidents can all cause severe stress. However, your body knows how to respond to such disasters.
If you are in immediate physical danger, specific sections of the brain become stimulated. In response, the body circulates more chemicals like epinephrine, cortisol, and serotonin. This causes physical responses that make it easier for you to stay safe, including:
- Dilated pupils
- Increased heart rate
- More strength
- Increased awareness
- Quick reaction time
The human body can maintain this state for emergencies, which usually don’t last long. But what happens when an emergency lasts months?
2) Surge Capacity in Mental Health
COVID-19 has introduced people to many new terms, such as “social distancing” and “super spreader.” Another term you may have heard in the news is “surge capacity” in reference to how many patients a hospital can take in the event of an outbreak. If there are more patients than local hospitals can handle with their surge capacity, there is more stress on the system than it can handle and people suffer.
Each person’s mental state has surge capacity as well. That is, people can deal with high levels of stress for a time, but not forever. In an emergency, the fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in and allows you to handle the increase of stress. When this emergency goes on for too long or it feels indefinite, there can be serious consequences for your mental health.
3) COVID-19 is a Chronic Emergency
Most people in the United States started dealing with the repercussions of COVID-19 sometime in March 2020. Now, many months later, we have all hit surge capacity in some form or another. The pandemic is responsible for many mental health issues because it has caused:
- Fear of physical danger
- Decision fatigue
- And more
Compounding all of these individual stressors is the fact that it’s so many people have been at a heightened state of stress for so long, and nobody can say for certain when it will all end. The mechanism that is supposed to help us with short-term emergencies has become chronic.
How to Handle Ongoing COVID19 Stress
While you cannot control how the pandemic unfolds, you can control your emotional response. Consider any of the following techniques:
- Stop trying to predict the future
- Try meditation, even if only for five minutes
- Find reputable sources of information
- Use the CDC’s decision-making tool to avoid decision fatigue
- Create and stick to routines
- Practice self-care as much as possible
- Reach out for help
LifeStance Health is here to help through this ongoing crisis. With telehealth options, online booking, and insurance coverage, we make getting mental health care as simple as possible. Whether you have a mental illness or not, speaking to someone about COVID19 and your struggles at this time can help.