The last few weeks have been very stressful.
From school closings that have our young children and older children home 24 hours a day, to working remotely or losing our paycheck, to seeing our retirement fund value drop, to the constant anxiety about our health and our loved ones, this is a very stressful time.
As a professor who started teaching online last week, I decided to begin my online class by addressing some fundamental lessons that psychology has known for a long time about stress and encourage my students to apply these in their own lives. After the class, I thought these lessons might be helpful to a larger audience. I offer them to the reader to better understand the stress we are all experiencing, know how to respond to it, and ultimately hope to improve our ability to stay healthy and make it through this pandemic.
First, in addition to stress just feeling bad, it is important to reduce as much of our stress as possible because it negatively affects our body’s capacity to fight off illness. Stress increases the body’s production of cortisol which over time decreases our ability to fight off infection making us more vulnerable to viruses. Stress also negatively affects our respiratory system exacerbating breathing problems, as well as our cardiac, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and nervous system straining these important systems in our body.
We have known for a long time that the accumulation of stressful life events contributes to illness. A popular measure of these stressful life events is the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Assessment which asks persons to indicate which events they have experienced in the last year, then add up the point values of those experiences. Higher scores on these life stressors predict greater likelihood of developing illness. If we reflect on the experiences we have all had in the last few weeks, we can see that we are all answering “yes” to a lot of the items on the scale.
For example, the item “major change in social activities” is 18 points, “major change in work hours or conditions” is 20 points, and “major change in financial state” is 38 points. Add the stress of “major change of health of a family member” if a family member is affected by the pandemic (44 points), as well as any other stressors we experienced in the last year (my father passed away in the last year—that’s another 63 points for me), and you can see that the pandemic not only threatens our health from the virus, but the cumulative stress related to the disruption from the pandemic also contributes to our risk for illness.