Stress During COVID-19: The Psychology, Behavioral Symptoms and Management Tips

Coronavirus – a term that we’re not only scared of, but also tired of hearing. Since its outbreak, most of us have been in a persistent state of anxiousness, for ourselves as well as our loved ones. Being in quarantine, maintaining our mental health has become just as important as our physical health. To do so, we need to understand the reason behind the tenacious psychological strain.

Why are we feeling the way we are?

COVID-19 is a chronic threat, mainly due to its ambiguous and persisting nature. On the other hand, encountering a predator would be considered acute short-term stress, where our primary response would consist of our “fight-or-flight” response. This response is managed by our body’s sympathetic nervous system – you can think of this system like a gas pedal in a race car, having the goal of short-term survival. During times of danger or extreme stress, our body pushes that pedal for a burst of energy so that our body is prepared to either fight the threat, or flee away from it.

The principal issue with COVID-19 is that we can’t run away from it, so “flight” is ruled out as an option. Neither can we effectively “fight” it yet, because it might be a while until a vaccine is discovered. There is also a lot of uncertainty lingering around about how long this will last, or if life would ever be the same. These reasons have caused our “fight-or-flight” system to become continually active, so we’re essentially hitting that car accelerator incessantly. This puts us in a state of frustration because the best way we’re expected to “fight” at the moment, is by staying at home, with an insufficient amount of information at our disposal.

Consequently, this can lead to learned helplessness – a state that occurs where a person who has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly, eventually comes to believe that they are unable to control or alter the situation. Even if opportunities for change arise in the future, that yields no action from that individual. They have come to believe that their situation is unchangeable or inescapable. If left unmanaged, this has a profound impact on our well-being and has been associated with various psychological disorders such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, etc.. When experiencing chronic anxiety, we might give up on finding a solution to relieve our anxiousness as it may begin to seem untreatable. This may also be a major reason as to why those experiencing mental health issues may refuse medications or therapy. 

Here’s a helpful video to learn more information about learned helplessness.

How do I know if I’ve not managed my stress well?

It’s important to recognize that some amount of stress allows us to reach an optimum level of arousal/productivity from us. However, if you go beyond that level, your productivity and even normal functioning can start becoming impaired. Here are a few behavioral symptoms (aside from the biological ones) that may show that you haven’t handled your stress well:

Not being able to focus or feeling demotivated

Feeling fatigued due to a persistent state of stress can have adverse effects on our ability to focus. Our energy might get drained since our sympathetic nervous system is constantly stepping on that gas pedal.

Lashing it out on others in an unhealthy way

This can also be a result of feeling irritable or having uncontrollable mood swings now and then. Other than stress being unhealthy for you, it can also be damaging to your relationships. The other person may not be able to effectively support you. Stress is contagious and this might create a negative cycle within your relationships.

Bottling your emotions

Although crying is a great way to let things out of your system, if you seem to be experiencing “crying spells” or uncontrollable, excessive crying several times, it may mean that you haven’t been able to process your thoughts in a healthy manner for yourself.

What can I do to manage my stress?

Exercise regularly

This point, although quite cliché, is one for a reason. Keeping our body fit will allow it to fight stress a lot better. Being in a constant state of stress can lower the strength of our immunity, and even make us more prone to getting the virus. Not only will regular exercise increase your overall health, but it will also increase your sense of well-being by pumping up your endorphins (our “feel-good” neurotransmitters).

Accept that some events are out of your control

This is very essential, especially for those having a stronger inner locus of control. The onus of being able to control our surroundings is not on us can be very unsettling and frustrating, but the sooner we’re able to do this, the better.

Seek social support at your own pace and comfort

Forming meaningful connections by spending e-time with those you enjoy conversing with is essential.

Engaging in de-stressing activities like practicing guided relaxation and mindfulness exercises

Again, these might seem like clichés to you, but they are principal to training your body for reacting to stressful events. Practicing either of these techniques for at least 15 minutes every day will prime your body to naturally (almost unconsciously) relax  during times of stress, and prevent you from becoming too overwhelmed.

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All that being said, if you still find yourself a little lost in terms of managing your stress, I would strongly encourage you to seek out help from a mental health professional or joining support/focus groups, if you have access to any. You will constructively be able to talk and train yourself in biofeedback techniques catered to you and learn about how your own body reacts to stress. 

Lastly, it is crucial to recognize that every individual is unique. Techniques that work for others may not work for you. That being said, there is no harm in actively trying out different strategies for yourself; you may surprise yourself and possibly end up with a new hobby too. Helping yourself manage your stress during these uncertain times is the first, but the most vital step to creating a resilient community – needed at a time like this.

NOTE – If you wish to learn more about how you can contribute to your community during times like this, I strongly recommend going through the attached PDF document uploaded by the WHO on essential mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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References & Citations:

  1. Bhandari, Smitha. “Stress Management: 13 Ways to Prevent & Relieve Stress.” WebMD, WebMD, 18 Feb. 2020, http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management. 
  2. Cherry, Kendra. “What Causes Learned Helplessness?” Verywell Mind, http://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-learned-helplessness-2795326.
  3. Gallagher, Sophie. “How to Feel Less Anxious about the Coronavirus, According to Psychologists.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 11 Sept. 2020, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-anxiety-how-tackle-a9370106.html.
  4. Gino, Francesca. “Are You Too Stressed to Be Productive? Or Not Stressed Enough?” Harvard Business Review, 5 Oct. 2017, hbr.org/2016/04/are-you-too-stressed-to-be-productive-or-not-stressed-enough. 
  5. Steber, Carolyn. “How To Tell If You Don’t Handle Stress Well, Based On These 9 Habits.” Bustle, Bustle, 26 Oct. 2018, http://www.bustle.com/p/how-to-tell-if-you-dont-handle-stress-well-based-on-these-9-habits-12992745. 
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