Many Americans have a new and unwelcome constant companion since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic: stress.

From widespread health anxieties and fear of contracting or communicating the virus, to job curtailments, stock market fluctuations, and adjustments to remote work and schooling, to isolating restrictions and overwhelming uncertainty, the past few weeks have brought a perfect storm of stress-inducing developments.

James Mahalik

Lynch School Professor James Mahalik

Following Boston College’s transition to online classes, James Mahalik, a professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development and a fellow of the American Psychological Association, began his students’ virtual experience of the course Personality Theories with some fundamental lessons about stress that they could apply in their own lives—and which could be of value to anyone experience mounting anxiety in these challenging times.

Here are three key takeaways:

Realize that reducing your stress matters

Continuing to feel stressed doesn’t help a situation, and in fact can worsen it, by negatively affecting the 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,” Mahalik said, “making us more vulnerable to viruses. Stress also negatively affects our respiratory system by exacerbating breathing problems, as well as straining our cardiac, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems.

“We have known for a long time that the accumulation of stressful life events contributes to illness,” he said. “So this 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.”

You can help reduce stress by reinterpreting events and experiences

Our response to events is affected by our interpretation of the event as threatening or not, said Mahalik; one person’s fear of roller coasters is another’s exhilaration. While the events we are now experiencing related to the pandemic are no amusement ride, he said, and our experiences of disruption are objectively stressful, our interpretation of the events can still contribute to ramping up or reducing our stress.

“For example, if our interpretation is that there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves from the danger of the pandemic, we are going to see this as a terrifying threat,” he said. “However, if our interpretation is that the threat is real, but we can protect ourselves by following recommended health practices (washing hands effectively, physical distancing), then we can feel more in control and reduce the experience of threat and stress.

“It may also help to reinterpret some of the experiences that are contributing to our feelings of stress. For example, physical distancing is likely creating stress for people because it is isolating and inconvenient. However, if we re-interpret our staying at home as helping to save lives or helping front-line medical personnel who are sacrificing so much for us, then our stressful experience has greater meaning or purpose. We may even be able to re-interpret the inconveniences we are experiencing by trying to find an opportunity in them. For example, having our family members around the house all the time may be stressful. However, if we reinterpret this as being inconvenient but also a chance to connect and build stronger family ties, then we can reduce some part of the stress of the experience.”

Increase your physical and emotional coping resources

We all need to maximize our coping resources to protect ourselves from the effects of stress, Mahalik said.

“We can strengthen our physical capacity to resist stress by taking care of our bodies: getting exercise, eating healthy food, avoiding substance use and caffeine, and reducing the toll of stress through relaxation exercises.

“Stress also takes an emotional toll by flooding us with negative feelings. If we’re feeling alone and sad about social disconnection, we can try to find creative ways to connect to people. Maybe we set up weekly times to ‘go out’ with friends virtually by using technology like Facetime, Google hangouts, or Zoom. Maybe we can reach out to friends or family members we have not talked with for a while, and check in with them about how they are doing. Meditation and prayer are also effective ways to improve our emotional resources by disconnecting from the feelings of stress for a period of time. For persons who are not sure how to meditate, there are many YouTube videos of guided meditation that are effective for many people who want to reduce their stress and feel more peaceful and mindful.”

Given the harmful effects on our health and immune system, reducing our experiences of stress should be a health priority, Mahalik concluded.

“Longstanding work on the psychology of stress encourages us to examine how we interpret events and the resources we have to cope with stress,” he said. “Finding ways to re-interpret our stressful events as real but offering meaning and opportunity, as well as strengthening our coping resources by taking care of our bodies and our emotions will improve our ability to stay healthy and make it through this pandemic.”

University Communications | April 2020