The Impacts of Chronic Pandemic Stress and What to Do About It
A year of chronic, unpredictable chronic stress caused by the ongoing pandemic leaves many of us feeling unmotivated, unable to focus and lethargic. More than half of Canadians report increased stress during the pandemic — and it’s the chronic and unpredictable stress that tends to leave us unfocused and unproductive.
One year into this pandemic, your brain might be feeling a bit like a fried egg. There may be a sense that everything is so much harder, and you don’t have the motivation you used to have or feel you are as efficient as you once were.
It is common to feel a sense of defeat, exhaustion, brain fog, and low motivation. Research suggests those feelings are not uncommon right now, as the pandemic’s chronic stress has affected our brains and robbed us of typical, healthy ways to cope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on our lives. Many of us face challenges that can be stressful, overwhelming, and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they can make us feel isolated and lonely and increase stress and anxiety.
Learning to cope with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and those around you become more resilient.
Stress can cause the following:
- Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration
- Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Worsening of mental health conditions
- Increased use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances
It is natural to feel stress, anxiety, grief, and worry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stress reduces our cognitive resources
A national survey of Canadians suggested that more than half of all respondents — 56 percent — said they felt increased stress or anxiety due to COVID-19. Among those aged 18-34, it was even higher, at 63 percent.
You don’t have to be lonely or depressed to be feeling lethargic or disengaged from life right now. Cognitive issues come from stress.
Some stress is short and predictable with an endpoint, and another stress is long in duration, unpredictable and seems unending. The pandemic has exposed us to chronic stress. Even among the most optimistic and positive people, the resulting stress is having an impact. Chronic stress, predictably, has this pronounced effect on our motivation, our energy, our get-up-and-go, our sense of happiness.
The pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives, especially how we sleep. Stress also affects brain tissue. The effect of chronic, malignant, unpredictable stress on the brain results in a loss of brain tissue. The loss isn’t random, and brain researchers found that key brain areas responsible for thinking and feeling are the hardest hit.
You may find yourself getting up every day, and you go through the same routine as if you were on repeat. The monotony and boredom leave us feeling tired, foggy, and unmotivated.
Are we stressed or bored?
Some people have wondered if what they’re feeling is boredom. Boredom in some situations can be a good thing; however, having difficulty remembering things and feeling like you are not functioning at 100 percent is a sign that something may be wrong.
We become bored when we experience a lack of meaning, and attention is absent. Finding ways to challenge yourself, finding ways to reintroduce purpose into your life can reduce boredom. The way to solve boredom during the pandemic is to end the pandemic.
Unfortunately, ending the pandemic isn’t within your control. As individuals, we have no control over when this will end; the pandemic has also taken away the systems we usually turn to in stressful times for comfort and healing.
There is hope. The brain can heal itself
With so-called “normal” stress — that which is predictable and finite — and even the most significant stressors in life such as death or divorce or the loss of a job, people can rely on different ways of coping:
- Staying busy with daily routines
- Maintaining your interests and hobbies
- Hanging out with friends or extended family
- Going to a place of worship or a community centre
But in many cases, those have been compromised, too.
The pandemic has also gotten in the way of strategies we could typically use to relieve stress, like gathering with friends and family. But the brain does heal, too. The brain does heal through a process called “plasticity.” The brain regenerates; once the stress source is gone. Over time the brain circuits begin to rewire and “normalize.” Brain scientists observe a correction in the brain’s circuit function, and there is a rejuvenation of brain tissue. Our brain’s neurons or brain cells continue to grow.
In the case of the pandemic, once most people are fully vaccinated, once life returns to what is “normal,” the brain recoverability should follow.
Healthy ways to cope with stress
Coping with stress is possible by adding one or more of these to your daily routine:
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It’s good to be informed, but constantly hearing about the pandemic can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple of times a day and disconnecting from phone, tv, and computer screens for a while.
- Take care of your body.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Exercise regularly.
- Try to get plenty of sleep. If you can.
- Avoid excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance use. This can be the "go-to" for people under stress and it can also exaggerate the problem.
- Continue routine preventive measures (such as vaccinations, cancer screenings, etc.) as recommended by your healthcare provider. The introduces a sense of control over your destiny that's crucial during these stressful times.
- Get vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine, when available.
- Make time to unwind.
- Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
- Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
- Connect with your community. While social distancing measures are in place, try connecting online, through social media, or by phone or snail mail.
The Ipsos survey cited in this article took place between February 8-10, 2021. A sample of 1,000 Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed online, with a margin of error of ± 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.