Woman Looking Out to the Lake

Stress: The Hidden Pandemic Contagion

According to the March 2021 Stress in America report from the American Psychological Association, between 44% and 54% of Americans (depending on ethnicity) report concerns about the future after the end of the COVID pandemic.  While we occasionally hear about the mental health impact of the pandemic, stress (not a mental health disorder per se) is a much more generalized experience that can manifest in weight gain, unwanted sleep changes, tension in the one’s muscles, and a general sense of fear or distress.

One of the key differences of pandemic stress and other forms of stress is the prolonged nature of the event triggering stress.  If you think about stress from a traffic jam, the traffic jam ends, and the stressful event is gone.  Coping with a traffic jam can take the form of calling ahead or changing routes.  Short-term stress events lend themselves to coping in more straightforward ways.

But, prolonged stressors like the COVID pandemic not only persist much longer than typical stressors, but they also are difficult to cope with.  The difficulty in coping with the pandemic comes from sources like hostile polarization about what to do next (e.g., if you wear a mask, others may yell at you), changing expert advice (e.g., CDC guidance changing over time about vaccines and boosters) and increases/decreases in the size of the threat (e.g., cases diminish, then explode upwards again or the virus mutates).  The pandemic requires an additional coping strategy:  Flexibility.

While short term stress sometimes requires flexibility (a different route has to be modified by turning left or right), the duration of the stressor demands less flexibility because it is over sooner than later.  The pandemic requires not just tactical flexibility (changes in a strategy), it requires strategic flexibility (incorporation of the willingness to keep changing how you cope).

Flexibility comes easy to some of us, but not to others.  For those of us that are less flexible, it helps to build a flexibility routine.  While it sounds oxymoronic (routine flexibility), we can adopt a flexible approach with the following steps:

  • Every week, figure out what you plan to do to cope with any changes in the responses you make to the pandemic (e.g., new mask mandates).
  • At the end of every day, take a couple of minutes to think through how you’re coping with the pandemic.
  • Identify any ways you might need to change how you cope (place more masks in your car).
  • Implement any changes each day if they are necessary.

Until the pandemic ends (and the mitigation efforts end as well), all of us will be asked to cope over a prolonged period.  The threat from the pandemic will increase or decrease, but probably won’t be the same one month to the next until we reach effective immunization.  As we cope in a healthy way, keeping ourselves on top of how to be effective through being flexible on purpose can improve our stress levels and cause us to feel less distress; and rather to feel more in control.