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.

James Mahalik

Lynch School Professor James Mahalik

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.  

The first appraisal process is our interpretation or response to events: Is it a threat or not?
Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman, Stress, Appraisal, and Coping

One approach to reduce our experiences of stress and the effects of stress is to apply the lessons from classic psychology work by Lazurus and Folkman. They draw our attention to two appraisal processes. The first thing they say affects our response to events is our interpretation of the event as a threat or not (i.e., primary appraisal). For example, one person in line for a rollercoaster views the ride as a threat because they are worried about the seatbelt coming off or the car flying off the tracks. That person is going to be anxious and have their blood pressure rising, muscles clenching, and cortisol pumping. Whereas another person is excited about the opportunity to ride the rollercoaster and does not view the ride as a threat.

Now the events we are experiencing related to the pandemic are not any amusement ride. Our experiences of disruption through work, school, family routines, social connections are objectively stressful. However, our interpretation of the events can still either ramp up or reduce our stress by focusing on more factual, optimistic interpretations of our situation. 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. However, if our interpretation is that the threat is real, but we can protect ourselves by following recommended health practices (i.e., washing hands effectively, physical distancing), then we can feel more in control and reduce the experience of threat and stress.

If our interpretation is that the threat is real, but we can protect ourselves by following recommended health practices, we can feel more in control and reduce the experience of threat and stress.
James Mahalik, Professor, Lynch School of Education and Human Development

It may also help to re-interpret some of our 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 saving lives or helping the 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 the experience. For example, having our family members around the house all the time may be stressful. However, if we re-interpret this as being inconvenient but also a chance to connect with family and build stronger family connections, then we can reduce some part of the stress of the experience by focusing on the opportunity it provides while acknowledging the real difficulty.

Social distancing from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Even with re-interpreting our stressful events to try to be factual and find meaning and opportunity in them, the pandemic is stressful. Lazurus and Folkman then draw our attention to our secondary appraisal, or our evaluation of the resources or coping strategies at our disposal to respond to the stressful events. We all need to be increasing our coping resources to protect ourselves from the effects of stress by addressing our physical and emotional selves. For example, we can strengthen our capacity to resist stress by taking care of our body by getting exercise, eating healthy food, avoiding substance use and caffeine, and reducing the toll on your body through relaxation exercises.

Second, stress takes an emotional toll on us flooding us with negative feelings. If 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 hundreds of excellent Youtube videos of guided meditation that are effective for a lot of people at reducing their stress and helping them to feel more peaceful and mindful.

If we re-interpret our staying at home as saving lives or helping front-line medical personnel who are sacrificing so much for us, then our stressful experience has greater meaning or purpose.
James Mahalik, Professor, Lynch School of Education and Human Development

Given the harmful effects of stress on health and our immune system, reducing our experiences of stress should be a health priority. Longstanding work on the psychology of stress encourages us to examine how we interpret events and the resources we have to cope with stress. Finding ways to re-interpret our stressful events as factual but also to find meaning and opportunity in them, 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.

—James Mahalik, professor, Lynch School of Education and Human Development