When it comes to stress, one way to start the conversation is to separate the small, daily hassles from the longer, more enduring types of stress. For example, waking up a few minutes late and racing to work might be considered an example of short-burst, acute stress; but dealing with ongoing financial difficulties is an example of a longer, more enduring chronic stress. During the current pandemic we have experienced both acute stress and chronic stress, but it is chronic stress that I would like to examine today
When we first experienced the pandemic, we didn’t exactly know what was happening, what changes would soon occur, or how long the pandemic would last. Now that we are 3 months into the shutdown, the days seem to blend together, and time passes without the common daily experiences we have been accustomed to in the past. We don’t frequent the places we used to, and as the pandemic extends, increasingly more people are feeling hopeless and pessimistic about the future. Will schools re-open in the fall? Will sports return? Will my company bring me back to work? Will my business survive?
Yes, the chronic stress many of us experience right now is far different than a brief traffic jam on the morning commute. The ongoing stress of not exactly knowing what is going on around us has taken us away from our enjoyable daily patterns and routines, leaving us to instead deal with uncertainty and confusion. Unlike an annoying minor inconvenience that can be quickly forgotten, the stress of managing kids at home, losing your income, and not knowing if you’ll eventually get your job back is an entirely different kind of experience.
How to cope with chronic stress
Perhaps the greatest danger of chronic stress is how, over time, it can negatively impact how you think and create a new “reality” anchored in pessimism. When days begin to blur and nothing ever changes, it’s easy to become lethargic, unfocused, and mentally exhausted. If you assume the future is going to be as bleak as the recent past, why even try?
Additional problems relating to chronic stress and ineffective coping include poor decision-making, often including risky behaviors and/or substance abuse. This pattern generally continues and compounds over time — that is, unless you have effective strategies to deal with chronic stress.
Below are tips and ideas to help address chronic stress relating to the current pandemic:
- Stay in control of your life. While you might not be going to the office as you usually would, it is still important that you try and stick to normal routines as much as possible. This includes eating and sleep habits, the hours you work from home (if you are still working), and any other patterns you normally would follow. The more you feel in control of your life, the less stress you will experience.
- Set daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Athletes set goals all the time, and so should you. Write down specific, measurable, controllable goals that you can complete and feel good about. Keep in mind the better you feel about yourself, the less likely you will fall victim to the negative consequences of chronic stress.
- Invest time in new experiences, hobbies, and interests. Have you ever wanted to learn something new, but never felt like you had the time? Well, that time has come and it’s right now! Jump on YouTube and learn how to paint, play guitar, or plant a garden by setting time aside each day to watch free videos. The opportunities for self-improvement through technology are endless today, and the only thing it will cost you is your time.
- Accept future changes with an open mind. Most experts agree it will be quite some time before we return to “normal,” if in fact we ever do. But keep in mind life is full of change, and that nothing stays the same. In all likelihood the future will look somewhat different, but we all made it through the last time we saw major changes in our country after 9/11, and we’ll bounce back after this, too.
This has been a stressful start to 2020, and there’s a good chance that our current pandemic challenges will stretch into 2021. “Forewarned is forearmed” might be the best reminder for all of us, as we now know what the pandemic experience has been like, allowing us to better prepare our time and energy should current conditions persist. While there are no easy answers or quick fixes, there are a number of things we can all do to help keep us safe, healthy, and optimistic.