Megan Rudenick, L.I.C.S.W.
Psychiatry & Psychology
For many people, 2020 has been a year of multiple changes or stress-inducing situations, including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic strain, racial unrest, political division, and environmental disasters, such as wildfires and hurricanes. All of these stressful situations happening at the same time can affect your mental and physical health.
Effects of stress
Stressful situations can affect you in many ways, especially when multiple stressful situations happen at the same time, including:
- Emotional changes
When you're stressed, you may experience many feelings, including anxiety, fear, anger, sadness or frustration, especially with situations where you feel like you do not have much control.
- Physical changes
Occasionally, emotions can feed on each other and produce physical symptoms, making you feel even worse. For example, stress can trigger headaches, nausea and indigestion. You may breathe more quickly, perspire more, experience heart palpitations, or experience various aches and pains. If you experience significant stress over a prolonged period, you may notice decreased quality of sleep; lapses in memory; or changes in your eating habits, such as eating more or less than you did previously. In addition, you may feel less inclined to exercise.
- Behavioral changes
People often behave differently when stressed. For example, you may become withdrawn, indecisive or easily irritated. You may be irritable or tearful. Some people may resort to unhealthy habits, such as drug or alcohol abuse when they feel stressed. Stress can make you feel angrier or more aggressive than before. You may yell or lash out over minor issues. In turn, this affects the way you interact with your relationships, including family and friends.
Many stressors at the same time
In 2020, there have been large societal changes that have occurred at the same time. With multiple stressors affecting the country or world, you might not feel like you can make or have a positive effect, or exert any control over the situation. This can make you feel more anxious, hopeless or helpless.
Ongoing negative news coverage can significantly affect your mood, especially if you consume news that tends to highlight suffering and emphasize feelings of fear or sadness. People handle stressful situations differently and have varying coping skills for handling negativity. However, it is unlikely that consuming only negative news would benefit your mental health, so I recommend a moderate approach. Seek out positive news stories or take a break completely from news and social media.
Focus on being physically distant, not socially distant
As part of the COVID-19 pandemic response, people have been asked by disease experts to remain physically apart from others to slow the spread of the virus. In many ways, this has affected how people socially connect with others.
I've noticed within my practice that some patients have delayed visiting family, meeting new family members or gathering with friends. These stressors create a sense of isolation that can lead to increased behavioral and emotional changes. Some people who felt their mental health was in a good place before are struggling in new ways due to restrictions. For people mentally struggling during this time, even the idea of making plans really has not been helpful.
Reflect on how your behavior and emotions may have changed and how this has affected not only yourself, but also other people in your life.
Here are ideas for keeping socially connected with loved ones while maintaining physical distancing to be safe:
It's not all bad news.
There are many things you can do to preserve or improve your mental health during stressful times, including:
- Exercise daily.
Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall mental health and health. It can take many forms. You can go for a walk, take the stairs whenever possible, walk up escalators, or run or bike to your destination rather than driving. Joining a virtual exercise class may help you commit to a schedule and provide social interaction safely.
- Get enough sleep.
Adults generally need between seven and nine hours of sleep. A brief nap—up to 30 minutes—can help you feel alert again during the day. To make your nighttime sleep count more, practice good sleep hygiene, such as avoiding using computers, TV and smartphones before bed. Here are additional tips for getting quality sleep during this time.
- Practice relaxation exercises.
Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are quick and easy ways to reduce stress. Get started with our mindfulness meditation tips, or ask your health care provider for recommendations.
Seeking professional help
Every person is different in how they feel from day to day and how they manage stressful events. I suggest that you check in with yourself at least once a week to assess your mental and physical health. Have you virtually connected with loved ones or focused on self-care? Are you feeling anxious, fearful or depressed more days than not? Is your life feeling unmanageable?
I recommend that you reach out to your primary care provider if your mental health is making it difficult for you to function as you used to or in a way that feels good to you. Therapy using telehealth technology is available from the comfort of your own home. In addition, I would recommend that you reach out to your primary care provider to become established with therapy via telehealth, which can be done from an electronic device. Most mental health providers also offer in-person appointments, as well.
Right now is a difficult time for many. Perhaps you're experiencing stressful events going on globally and maybe right in your own backyard. Talking to a primary care provider or a behavioral health professional about the best way to handle and react should be just as accepted and common as seeking care for physical aches and pains. Everybody likes to feel good, and your care team is available to help you make that happen.