The COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on us as individuals and as a society, on a worldwide scale. There have been significant changes to our daily experiences in the context of lockdowns, self-isolation, and physical distancing. As humans, we are inherently social creatures, and in the context of this pandemic, we have lost access to the typical ways in which we meet our social needs. This pandemic has significantly changed our lives and can cause (variable and/or persistent) acute stress and chronic stress responses.
The pandemic as an “acute stress”
Initially, the onset of the pandemic can be considered to be an acute stress in terms of the way it impacted us and our ability to cope; regarding the impact on ourselves and our nervous systems, an acute stress response is one that activates the sympathetic nervous system or “fight or flight response.” This response is often referred to as “anxiety,” which can be more episodic in nature as our nervous system responds to a threat the environment and then we subsequently seek safety and can return to a state of ease. As such, the anxiety system is meant to switch on and off as a response to immediate threats in the environment.
In regard to the pandemic, especially the initial onset, we perceive the presence of immediate danger and our nervous systems respond as if there is an immediate stress or risk of danger. In many ways, the pandemic provides a legitimate increased risk of danger in relation to the risk of infection and the consequences of that infection. As such, when responding to an acute stressor, our nervous systems respond with hypervigilance (i.e., scanning the environment for danger), muscle tension (in order to spring the action), worry/preoccupation (as a way to analyze the environment in hopes to keep us safe), as well as other sympathetic nervous system responses, such as increased heart rate and changes in breathing rate.
The pandemic as a “chronic stress”
In the wake of a prolonged period of an acute stress reaction, a stressor can become chronic. There are many stressors that can become chronic, such as work stress, interpersonal relationship issues, financial strain, and the prolonged fear of infection (i.e., pandemic), to name a few. For the context of this article, I believe there to be a difference between acute stress, referred to above as “anxiety,” and chronic stress, which I refer to as “stress,” but this is a matter of labels and diction.
When a stressor becomes chronic, it impacts the mind and body in a more profound manner as it continues to tax resources in a way that was not intended. During periods of chronic stress, stress hormones are continuously released in the body, perpetuating a fight or flight response. In the face of persistent sympathetic nervous system activation, we experience chronic muscle tension and soreness (e.g., in the shoulders, neck, jaw), disrupted sleep patterns, disrupted eating habits, significant fatigue or lack of energy, decline in cognitive function (e.g., poor attention/concentration), increased irritability, becoming easily overwhelmed, and feeling depressed. Other indicators of chronic stress include G.I. distress/digestive issues, chronic pain, headaches, poor immune system function (e.g., frequent infections/colds), and decreased libido. Over time, we begin to lose the capacity to engage more effectively in other parts of our life (that we previously enjoyed) as the chronic stressor takes up most, or all, of our physical and mental resources. Our lives become narrow in terms of activities where we confront/face the chronic stressor and resort to recovery actions; without awareness of our coping repertoire and the short and long term impacts of these actions, we often engage in “maladaptive” coping strategies that provide immediate relief of the stress response, such as escaping/disconnecting (e.g., excessive sleep, excessive use of TV or video games, zoning out), numbing (e.g., substance use, less health food habits and choices), and avoidance (i.e., not engaging in activities that provoke any level of distress). As maladpative coping of the chronic stressor persists, our lives may become more and more limited.
An interesting phenomenon that appears to be occurring during the pandemic is that many individuals report experiencing, sometimes extreme, fluctuations in their well-being, functioning, and emotion regulation/mood. People report this experience as functioning “ok” and being able to meet the demands have their daily life and some of the additional goals they may set for themselves for a few days, and sometimes without notice, the same person might report a significant reduction in their ability to meet these demands for a few days. During these “down days,” the person will likely experience the above-mentioned symptoms a facing a chronic stressor. Following a period of these down days, the person will return to an “ok” level of functioning -and the cycle continues, perhaps with longer periods of down days as the pandemic chronic stress endures.
Chronic stress – an analogy regarding coping
When speaking with clients about the impact of chronic stress, I like to use the analogy of a bucket, which I refer to as “the coping bucket.” When stressors appear in our life, as they do on a daily basis to varying degrees, it is as if liquid is filling our bucket; the larger the stressor, the greater the flow and quantity of the liquid. Once the liquid reaches the top of the bucket (i.e., our upper threshold for our ability to cope with the stress), we start to experience more severe symptoms, such as “breakdowns,” feeling overwhelmed, anger outbursts, emotional dysregulation, etc.
In order for us to regulate the amount of liquid in the bucket, we need to find ways to release liquid from the bucket, and in the context of this analogy, I imagine spouts at the bottom of the bucket that can pour liquid out; these spouts are our adaptive coping (i.e., helpful) strategies. Similar to the flow speed and quantity of liquid entering the bucket, the spouts differ in terms of how quickly and how much stress they release. For example, in the context of the pandemic, the spouts that previously released greater amounts of liquid likely release less liquid currently because we strategy has been modified to fit within pandemic guidelines. A prime example of this is the way in which we connect socially during the pandemic; many people remark that there is something “different” about connecting virtually rather than connecting in person and that it does not meet our need for connection to the same degree as before.
It is important to note that, at certain points in our lives (depending on the surrounding context of our life), what may have been an adaptive and helpful coping strategy might actually become a source of stress and “add” to the bucket. Part of developing our ability to cope with the variable stressors of life is to pay attention to what our mind and body needsin a given moment and what will best serve the purpose of reducing the liquid (i.e., stress) from the bucket. For example, exercise is generally an adaptive coping strategy to burn off distressed energy; however, when we are feeling rundown and significantly fatigued, exercise may exacerbate this and push us closer to burnout.
If you are having difficulty coping with acute, chronic, or pandemic stress, I encourage you to reach out to a professional (psychologist or psychotherapist) who can assist you in developing and strengthening your coping skill repertoire, as well as address other contributing factors to the maintenance of your symptoms.
Dr. W. Rylie Moore, C.Psych., is a clinical psychologist & neuropsychologist at CFIR’s Toronto location and he has published academic articles in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters. As a requested presenter at numerous national and international academic conferences, Dr. Moore has spoken on topics related to gender dysphoria, LGBT2QA advocacy, psychological assessment, executive functions (cognitive abilities that could be described as the CEO of the brain), stuttering, and bilingualism. In his therapy practice, he works with clients to understand what is happening for them in its larger context, including past experiences and their social world.