Many Americans have experienced an unprecedented amount of stress from losses and hardship experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The America Institute of Stress explains that multiple definitions of stress exist. The most common descriptions are “a physical, mental or emotional strain or tension,” and “a reaction to a situation where a person feels anxious or threatened.” While stress often results from difficult or adverse events, it’s not unusual for stress to arise from a positive situation, such as, a marriage, graduation or winning an award or race. A certain degree of stress is normal in human nature and can be very motivating. Perceptions of stress vary by each individual as well, and are affected by one’s genetics, and history of traumatic experiences.

When stress occurs in greater intensity and over prolonged periods it can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. Various types of occurrences may cause substantial or long-term stress including the loss or illness of a loved one, personal sickness, extended isolation, significant restrictions in abilities or daily lifestyle, and financial strain. It’s not unusual for these events or stressors to cause high tension, fear, anxiety, and despair. Other reactions may be denial, frustration, feelings of helplessness, difficulty focusing, impaired decision-making, alcohol or drug use, and head, stomach or other body aches.

Our bodies respond to stressful events by releasing a surge of hormones into the bloodstream including adrenaline and cortisol. The hypothalamus, a very small area of the brain, sets off this process when danger is perceived. These hormones, in turn, elevate heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose or sugar levels. This process is known as the fight or flight response. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, also limits other body functions, for example, digestion and growth processes in order to overcome the immediate threat. This stress reaction typically concludes when the perception of danger has dissipated. At this point, brain and body activities resume to normal functioning. When hormone levels remain elevated from prolonged stress, the risk for adverse health effects becomes greater. The Mayo Clinic notes that long periods of the fight or flight response increase the risk for a number of conditions, such as, anxiety, memory and concentration problems, depression, heart disease, weight increase, digestive trouble, sleep issues, and headaches.

Although you may not be able to control stressors in your life, there are healthy ways to cope or help lessen stress. It’s very important to practice gentle, self-care on a daily basis.  Some key steps include getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep daily, eating a well-balanced, whole foods diet, avoiding processed foods and stimulants, such as, alcohol and caffeine, and moderately exercising for 30 minutes at least 5 days a week. Daily meditation, taking time for a pleasurable activity or hobby, journaling your thoughts and feelings, and confiding in a trusted friend or family member are other helpful practices. For a health concern, consult with your physician to facilitate early treatment as needed. Consider professional counseling if feelings of stress are straining your ability to focus and function. More guidance for stress reduction including extreme stress or suicidal thoughts is available from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) at:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fprepare%2Fmanaging-stress-anxiety.html

The good news is that adults and those 16 year of age and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in most states as of April 19th. Becoming fully vaccinated against COVID-19 re-opens the door for personally re-uniting and spending treasured time with loved ones and friends who are vaccinated. Through mass vaccination and continuation of basic COVID-19 precautions there is great promise toward finally ending the risk of this serious infection and enjoying renewed freedoms. For information about current COVID-19 precautions, refer to the CDC’s website at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated-guidance.html

Please note due to the rapidly evolving nature of related treatment and studies, the facts and recommendations within this article may have changed since publication.