Weeks into the pandemic, many of us are operating in survival mode. Actions as simple as going to the grocery store or speaking to a stranger face-to-face have taken on new and ominous significance. Our anxiety levels are through the roof. This raises a concerning question for the future: Yes, this will all end someday, but in the meantime, what are the lasting effects of living through this extended period of high stress?
“Continued, unrelenting stress as we are seeing can cause decision paralysis,” says Sue Varma, a board certified psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone, in an email. This affects our concentration and ability to make good decisions. If depression sets in, it can also lead to a loss in motivation.
The fight-flight-freeze response
Our bodies respond to stressful situations with a fight-flight-freeze response. Although we often think about the fight or flight response, we’re currently in one of those dangerous situations where fighting or fleeing aren’t an option. There is no punching a virus in the face or outrunning an infection. Instead, there are only quiet, measured responses, such as staying at home. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t experience the same physiological reactions that are triggered in other types of dangerous situations.
Think of freezing, which can also be called reactive immobility or attentive immobility, as fight-or-flight on hold. You are preparing to protect yourself. All of the physiological changes that accompany the fight-flight-freeze response are in effect, but instead of immediate action, the body is simply preparing for its next steps.
For those of us staying at home, we are like the proverbial possums, forced to freeze in the face of danger. There is little we can do other than to remain in a constant state of vigilance.
Prolonged stress has physical and mental consequences
The fight-flight-freeze response is a short-term one, meant to get people out of a dangerous situation. The consequences of being locked into an extended state of stress can be both physical as well as mental.
“Heart disease, obesity, stroke, pre-mature death, as well as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder all are potential physical and mental consequences,” Varma says. In these types of situations, people are also prone to making poor judgments. Notably, domestic violence rates have recently spiked.
As harmful as these effects are, there are ways to manage them, the first one of which is to reach out to your primary care doctor if you feel the effects are becoming too much for you to handle. But even before you reach that point, there are preventative measures you can take, including the development of healthy coping mechanisms to help get you through particularly difficult moments.
The 4 M’s
“Learning how to effectively manage stress [through] adaptive coping skills is one of the most important abilities [to develop], and can predict mental health and longevity,” Varma says. Her suggestions is that people practice the 4 M’s of mental health every day: mindfulness, meaningful engagement, mastery (which includes creative pursuits of any kind) and movement. Listen to your body and your mind rather than ignoring what they are telling you. Stay connected with friends and family however you can while practicing safe physical distancing. Occupy your time with an activity that you find satisfying. And don’t forget to exercise, even if you can’t leave the house.
In addition to these measures, it’s also important to do everything possible to slow the virus’s spread through measures such as hand washing and physical distancing; these are effective measures of staying healthy, yes, but they are also completely within our control—and knowing you are doing all you can to protect yourself and your family can have a calming effect.