BY LEAH KATZ, Ph.D.
I can’t be the only one noticing an increase in the amount of white hairs on my head, right? I know these silver foxes weren’t there a couple of months ago, and I’m also pretty certain I am not yet of the age to expect an ongoing new crop of these guys in my hair.
My gray hair actually makes perfect sense in light of what we are living through. Graying hair is a researched response to ongoing stress. Whether or not I acknowledge it, I am under quite a bit of extra daily stress right now. And I think it’s safe to say, most likely so are you.
As we enter month number-I-lost-track-of-it in coronavirus life, the stress of living during a global pandemic has become a chronic phenomenon. As a psychologist, I have watched both my own and my clients’ ongoing and changing emotional responses to this unfolding pandemic.
Our collective evolving emotional landscape looks something like this: In the beginning, there was widespread acute anxiety – many people were thrown right into fight, flight or freeze mode. Then, after some time, whether or not we liked it, we settled into the closures and new social norms; as the acute anxiety settled down somewhat, the grief at what had been lost began bubbling up.
As the pandemic persists, it seems the once high and acute anxiety of the beginning stages of this pandemic has transformed into chronic anxiety and/or stress.
Acute stress is our body’s reaction to a discreet stressor. Once the situation passes, the hormones cease being excreted, and we go back down to our deactivated baseline.
Chronic stress is the release of stress hormones in response to ongoing and persistent stress. This type of stress response can lead to wear and tear on our bodies, as our bodies are not designed for the constant activation of this stress activation. It is depleting and exhausting to have these stress hormones continually be released, and it takes a toll on our bodies. Chronic stress has been linked to a host of physical and emotional difficulties (including graying hair).
Now several months into the pandemic, many people are contending with ongoing and severe chronic stress.
So, what are we to do? How can we acknowledge the continuing stress we are experiencing and move towards active coping to mitigate the potential toll it can take on our psyche and health?
The following are eight ideas on how we can process and work through our chronic stress.
Practice awareness of your breathing
Remember, when all else seems like it’s falling apart, we always have our breath to come home to. Noticing the gentle rise and fall of our natural breathing has a way of both filling us and comforting us. When we remind ourselves that we have our breath as a calming companion to turn to no matter what is going on around us, we find a source of power within us.
Take deep breaths
This is different than the above-mentioned meditative practice, which is not a breath manipulation. Deep breathing – or diaphragmatic breathing – is a manipulation of our natural breathing rhythm. This is taking intentional, longer and fuller breaths all the way down to our abdomen. This actually inhibits our body’s stress response. It cues our nervous system to relax, increasing the amount of oxygen we are taking in, and engaging our parasympathetic system to engage in a calming response.
This is one very well proven way to work through the buildup of ongoing stress. Engaging in cardiovascular exercise is shown to decrease stress and is associated with a host of mental and physical benefits. (Reminder: Never do anything that is not right for your body!)
Using the word “and” during this time can be a powerful practice. This word creates a dialectic. That is, it is possible to have multiple and even conflicting realties co-occurring at the very same time. When we notice all that is unfolding in every single day and moment, we can acknowledge both the painful realties and recognize that there is more happening beyond the pain.
Performing acts of kindness has been shown to help with stress and increase feelings of happiness. During a time when it is natural to become entirely egocentric and unintentionally forget about others as you are dealing with your own stress, creating a mental shift and deliberately doing random and even untraced acts of kindness can do wonders for your own stress levels.
One act of kindness really touched me: A couple of months ago, I found a chocolate bar in my mailbox with a letter that said “In tough times, a little chocolate can go a long way. … Love, your neighborhood secret pandemic chocolate supplier.” It brightened up my pandemic experience, and I believe it must have lifted my anonymous chocolate supplier’s as well. There is someone who is doing a good job of actively coping with this crisis.
Adhere to a schedule
Try and create a rhythm for yourself (and your children if you have them living with you). It helps create a sense of predictability and control, which we all need, especially when it seems as if the world is unraveling around us.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule
Going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time every day (yes, even on the weekends) is shown to benefit not only the quality of our sleep, but also our mental well-being. What better time to instill this personal boundary as there are so many factors that are detracting from our mental health.
Lead with self-compassion
I like to finish off these lists with a reminder to please practice them from a place of self-compassion. Remind yourself, no one functions optimally under conditions of chronic stress – including you. As the world has had to readjust, please readjust the expectations you have of yourself.
Leah Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist practicing in Portland. She specializes in working with teenagers and adults with anxiety and depression. Leah is a member of Congregation Kesser Israel and a member of the Wexner 2020 Portland cohort. She is also a contributing blogger for Psychology Today.
Thank you, Dr. Katz for highlighting this important aspect of Covid-19 –chronic stress with no end in sight! For many of us, having almost no impact or input on the decisions being made is incredibly difficult; especially with the myriad of constant changes which creates credibility questions from all levels of leadership.
Again, thank you for “saying out loud” this issue and for suggesting simple personal remedies to get us through!