HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT
As the Novel coronavirus accelerates in transmission across Trinidad and Tobago and the world, anxieties and stress about COVID-19 are becoming just as contagious in its proliferation and possibly even more damaging health wise.
Stress can be helpful, but stress can also bring a person to full blown panic attacks and at worst, depression, and suicide. Health Plus explored the GOOD, the BAD and the UGLY of Stress and ways to prevent this from eroding your optimised health.
Harvard Health defines Stress as a natural process by which we respond to certain stimuli, events or stressors that we perceive as negative, challenging, or threatening.
Is stress a perception? It is well documented that different people perceive different stimuli to be more or less stressful. Many times, stress can be a time-consuming and counter-productive reaction to an inert stimulus. However, once we can deliberately choose a response versus a reaction to this stimulus, we can intentionally train our minds to cope better with stress.
The Good: Eustress
Eustress: moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer. Stress means you care about something. Being stressed out is the body’s attempt to tell us this thing is important. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology shows higher levels of stress correlates to more meaning in the participants’ lives. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, argues that stress has numerous upsides, if it is viewed in the right light. “Those who believe stress is negative have worse outcomes than those who recognize that stress is a natural response that people can use to their benefit.”
Stress can be good, with the right mindset.
Going back to the definition of stress, it is a natural, physiological response. While stress can be a complex response to neutral situations, evolution designed stress to help us survive harmful situations. Whether one is newly confirmed positive for COVID-19 or to appear in a public speaking event or take an exam, our brain communicates signals to prepare for the situation, releasing our battle hormone, Adrenaline. Over-exposure can be damaging to one’s health. Because of this, adrenaline is a hormone worth understanding.
The fight-or-flight hormone: Adrenaline
Adrenaline causes a noticeable increase in strength and performance, as well as heightened awareness, in stressful times. This reaction causes air passages to dilate to provide the muscles with the oxygen they need to either fight danger or flee. Adrenaline also triggers the blood vessels to contract to re-direct blood toward major muscle groups, including the heart and lungs. The body’s ability to feel pain also decreases, which is why you can continue running from or fighting danger even when injured. Adrenaline also causes a release of glucose which a fight-or-flight response would use. After the stress has subsided, adrenaline’s effect can last for up to an hour.
Problems associated with adrenaline
While adrenaline is an important survival strategy of your body's ability to endure, sometimes the body will release the hormone when it is under stress but not really facing physical danger, it may be perceived danger. This can create feelings of dizziness, light-headedness and vision changes. When no danger is present, that extra energy has no use, and this can leave the person feeling restless and irritable. For a diabetic, the extra glucose circulating within the bloodstream will cause a hyperglycaemic spike. Excessively high levels of the hormone due to stress without real danger can cause a jittery, nervous feeling, palpitations, increased blood pressure, anxiety, heart damage, insomnia, and the list can go on.
Heightened stress within a pandemic is NORMAL, but it can quickly transform into anxiety that impairs clear, concise thinking, alters behaviours and have long term adverse health effects.
The Ugly: Becoming anxious and overwhelmed
Globally we know that this pandemic is causing people to feel anxious, distressed or worried: fear of contracting the virus, of family becoming sickened; stress and anxiety related to isolation and quarantine measures; distress about separation with family members; losing one’s job, now unable to meet bills; fear of longer term impacts of the global disruption; among other reasons. The stress of a pandemic can take a toll on your mental health.
There are also several persons and communities who are particularly vulnerable to the psychosocial impact of the pandemic:
• The elderly, who have difficulty caring for themselves, especially in isolation and those with comorbidities and/or cognitive decline or dementia, may become more anxious, angry and stressed.
• People with existing mental health conditions may experience an increase in psychological distress and trauma symptoms if they are isolated or their group treatments have been disrupted.
• People who are at risk of sexual and gender-based violence are likely to experience increased stress as the isolation may increase their risk, and they may be unable to seek help. Continued service provision and access for survivors must be a priority.
• Children may feel fear and sadness. They need to express and communicate their feelings in a safe and supportive environment, and to have familiar or new routines like engaging in age-appropriate activities, playing and socialising with others, even if only within the family. Children need to be close to their parents and family, if considered safe, or to stay in regular contact with them.
• Health care workers are facing unique hardships during this pandemic, working in extraordinary circumstances, likely to feel under pressure and stress and in many cases, are worried about transmitting the disease to their families.
It is now imperative to develop sustained coping mechanisms to stay resilient during this coronavirus pandemic.
Prepare, Plan not panic
Knowledge and preparation can help reduce feelings of panic and associated stressed. Prepare for the worst-case scenarios and create a plan for you and your family.
• Write down specific worries you have about how coronavirus may disrupt your life. If you start feeling overwhelmed, take a break.
• Make a list of all the possible solutions you can think of. Try not to get too hung up on “perfect” options. Include whatever comes to mind that could help you get by.
• Focus on concrete things you can problem solve or change, rather than circumstances beyond your control.
• After you’ve evaluated your options, draw up a plan of action. When you’re done, set it aside and resist the urge to go back to it until you need it or your circumstances significantly change.
Emotions are contagious, so be mindful who you seek support and counsel from
Focus on the things you can control
There are so many things outside of our control, including how long the pandemic lasts, how other people behave, and what’s going to happen in our communities. That is a tough thing to accept. When you feel yourself getting caught up in the whirlwind of fear of what might happen, try to shift your focus to things you can control.
• Shift your mindset to better adapt to the daily changes or disruptions that occur
• Take steps to reduce your own personal risk
• Stay informed, but be selective in the sources of media
• Stay connected, even if physically distanced apart
• Take care of your well-being, keep to a healthy routine
• Reduce social media input and digital distractions; reconnect with nature instead.
• Be kind to others and help if you can
• Be kind to yourself and less judgmental
Be a calming influence
If friends or loved ones are panicking, try to help them gain some perspective on the situation and shifts in mindset. Instead of scaremongering or giving credence to false rumours, refer them to reputable news sources. Being a positive, uplifting influence in these anxious times can help you feel better about your own situation too. Encourage all to focus on things we should be grateful for, even the simplest but an invaluable asset – the ability to breathe freely.