Stress and Anxiety: The Lurking Casualties of the Coronavirus

When something goes awry, many of us have a tendency to “spot treat.” If you’ve ever attempted to patch a leaky ceiling, you know the water will inevitably find another crack from which to drip. If we don’t fix the source, the problem continues. Sure, you can treat the symptoms, but it’s just a temporary solution until the main issue is resolved. This applies to house repairs, work dilemmas, and our own physical and mental wellbeing. We need to deal with stress and anxiety.

There is a lot of discussion regarding the economic and health aspects of the Coronavirus. But, perhaps, we’re downplaying the psychological effects…

We underestimate the impact of stress because many of us appear to be doing a pretty good job coping. Remote work, virtual school, package delivery, communicating with friends via Zoom, and/or finding other creative ways to connect have really mitigated the underlying tension.

Yet, no matter the situation you currently find yourself in, you’ve certainly experienced some sort of drastic change while witnessing a global pandemic unfold. Our individual situations vary, but we’re all affected in one way or another:

  • An E.R. doctor in NY committed suicide after recovering from the disease and going back to work while stressing over patients who frequently died without getting to see their families.
  • Students are experiencing stress and anxiety as schools formulate plans on the go, causing confusion and stress for everyone involved. How will they be graded? How will they complete lab work? How will exams be administered? How do high school students get credit for AP courses? What about low-income families who don’t have access to the Internet? Or families who only have one computer and a parent uses it for work? When will schools open and what will that look like? There are a lot of questions to which the answers are vague, uncertain, or simply unavailable.
  • Businesses have no idea when or how they will reopen while over 30 million people are unemployed. Many small businesses are under the impression they will receive loans only to see those loans go to the bank’s best clients rather than being distributed based on need and merit.
  • Lockdown rules are cramping people in small spaces with little ability to socialize or even get outside. This is particularly difficult for relatives who are unable to see one another, family members who are not allowed to visit sick loved ones, and kids who need space to play and time to visit with friends. Parents with young children (who seem to have never-ending energy) are finding it increasingly hard to work… or even think… And quiet time? Out of the question.
  • Stresses on our economic systems are also causing breakdowns and resulting in more disruptions. We’re seeing medical supply shortages, oil surplus, and food processing limitations to name a few.
  • School and tax collection shortfalls in addition to the complete collapse of industries like travel, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment are further crippling our economy.
  • Parents waiting in food lines, attempting to feed their kids is beyond comprehension. Similarly, prisons, nursing homes, cruise ships, navy ships, and other circumstances that require people to live in close quarters have been victimized by the virus.
  • Many people are facing new challenges such as food shortages, inability to pay rent, difficulty accessing health care, and standstills in unemployment benefits due to the high volume of applicants.

Dealing with one of these issues would add to our stress and anxiety, in and of itself, but many of us are facing several of them simultaneously on a daily basis. These difficult situations affect us all and begin to manifest as fear, anxiety, and stress:

  • Stress can take shape in various ways. It might cause sadness, confusion, irritability, anger, uneasiness, or suicidal thoughts. Other stress symptoms include: reduced concentration, efficiency, or productivity, social withdrawal and isolation, interpersonal problems (lying, defensiveness, inability to communicate, or increased arguing), tension (headaches, jaw clenching, teeth grinding), body pain (muscle spasms, stomach cramps, ulcers), reduced energy (tiredness, weakness, fatigue), sleeping problems (insomnia, nightmares, sleeping too much).
  • We all experience frustration when we feel unable to control our own destiny. While many of us have experienced unemployment, in the past there was at least a system in place that allowed us to wait it out comfortably or find another job. Now, with all the shutdowns, there are few options for restaurant workers, sports stadium employees, and even many highly paid actors or dancers. The length of the lockdown, the difficulties of filing an unemployment claim, the delay in receiving benefits, and the many regulations already in place all add to a feeling of helplessness. When we don’t have a sense of agency over our lives, we feel out of control, lost, stressed, and scared.
  • Individuals who, previously, did not suffer from germaphobia or agoraphobia are now experiencing symptoms. As their safety feels threatened, many are becoming fearful of activities and situations that used to seem benign.
  • People are confused on a daily basis and it’s hard to relax when things change by the minute. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the influx of inconsistent updates. We’re creatures of habit and, when our routines are constantly being altered, we become uneasy.
  • Acts that once gave comfort and encouragement (hugs, high-fives, handshakes) are now off limits. It’s not just disconcerting; it very possibly is also adding to our stress and anxiety. We are social creatures that crave human connection and when we are unable to find solace in a hug or vent at the water cooler with friends, it takes a toll on us mentally.

Stress, anxiety, and uncertainty will certainly remain a part of our present and future, but they’ve also been a part of our past and we’ve always overcome. So, here are some suggestions to help you stay calm and fend off stress proactively and productively:

  • Remember that everyone is struggling and be open-minded.
  • Remind yourself that you’re not alone.
  • Test ways to help yourself and others.
  • Try and be happy with small wins
  • Assess problems and alternatives.
  • Share concerns with others.
  • Don’t obsess over what you can’t control.
  • Develop and accept new paradigms.
  • Don’t overwhelm yourself by taking on too much at once.
  • Be humble.
  • Don’t let pride get in your way. (Unemployment benefits and food pantries are great resources, and utilizing them is nothing to feel embarrassed about.)
  • Be kind and helpful to loved ones and strangers alike.
  • Thank all the service and healthcare workers who are risking their own wellbeing for our needs.
  • Keep things in perspective. (i.e. Shopping may be a bit cumbersome these days, but remember that everyone is trying their best and it’s not the clerk’s fault the toilet paper shelf is empty.)
  • Don’t spot treat. If you’re facing a problem, be honest with yourself in order to get to the root of the it and find solutions. The issue might be deeper than you realize. Therapy is also an excellent resource.
  • Don’t be afraid of the inevitable. (Bankruptcies will explode, attending public events will be different, hugs and handshakes will change.)
  • Learn to adjust and adapt.
  • Take care of yourself (eat healthy meals, exercise, get some fresh air, meditate, try to keep a regular sleep schedule).
  • Be patient (with yourself and others). We’re all going through a lot—cut yourself some slack.
  • Take deep breaths.

The more you work on your stress management, the more you’ll notice a pattern. We all have a threshold of tolerance, but many of us miss the signs our bodies give us. We ignore (or spot fix) things like tension headaches, chronic pain, and sleep disturbances… But, this is our body’s way of signaling that we need to take a break and amend the way we’re coping.

The way we deal with stress may change over time, but it is helpful to pay attention to trends and take note of what makes it better or worse. Pretending problems don’t exist, overextending yourself, and being too stubborn to ask for help are all surefire ways to make stress worse. You may be able to keep it bottled up for some time, but it will eventually find a way to rear its head.

Connecting with others, talking about how we’re feeling, finding a healthy physical release (walking, dancing), and helping people have proven time and again to decrease stress and improve mental health. Let’s hope we continue to care for our neighbors and offer assistance and friendship when needed. And let’s face it, the positive effects of increasing our sense of community is something we all need right now.

Related: When the Pandemic Gets Tough, the Tough Get Logical