Stress Tested: How to Cope After a Very Long Year

An illustration of young female sitting on the floor and holding their knees with a scribble thought bubble above her head.

For well over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our ability to handle our stress and anxiety. We have all carried the mental load of pandemic life and loss and are now struggling to process and heal. 

In this Q+A, Aron Steward, Ph.D., Chief of Psychology at the UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital shares her tips for understanding and improving your mental health after this very challenging year. 

How has the pandemic affected our mental health? 

Re-emerging from the pandemic poses a new challenge. First, we went through the physiological threat of COVID-19, and now we’re experiencing the mental health ripple. Just as we focused on recovering from the physical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must now be mindful to repair our mental health. 

You are not alone in feeling fatigued, tired, sad, tearful or irritable. A lot of us are experiencing those feelings. Patients come from all different populations, orientations and ages. 

For those of us familiar with mental health care and treatment, we may notice that the pandemic exacerbated existing mental health conditions. For those of us who don’t have a previous mental health history, the pandemic gave us an opportunity to feel what isolation and lack of coping strategies does to humans and humanity. 

What groups generally experienced the greatest pandemic stress? 

There are groups that, unfortunately, were more negatively impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those with a history of mental health and trauma often felt a stronger sense of fear and exacerbated symptoms. Oppressed, marginalized or stigmatized populations also saw an increase in depression and anxiety. By self-report, these populations are experiencing an increase in fear, sadness and loneliness. 

Another group greatly impacted by the pandemic is those that border psychological trauma in their personal or professional lives. For example, health care providers, mental health care providers and people that were living in psychologically traumatic situations prior to the pandemic experienced a spike in their depression and anxiety. 

Lastly, people that were physically isolated or alone during the pandemic experienced a negative impact to their mental health.

What are the signs of stress? 

Our bodies all physically react the same way during stressful situations. We release the same hormones that initiate a stress response: our pupils dilate, palms sweat and heart races. 

But, the way our emotional brain responds to stress is unique among individuals and dependent upon our upbringing, family of origin, beliefs and values, culture and feelings. Stress makes some people feel agitation or irritability, while others feel lethargic, sleepy and tired. It is important to check in with yourself and reflect to begin building the coping strategies that best support you. 

How can I cope with stress?

As humans, we are built to bounce back from adversity. We are able to find creative and adaptive solutions to new and different challenges. 

Resiliency is a helpful skill when managing your mental health, but it is an up-and-down process, not smooth and streamlined. For some of us, it will take a long time to recover from the stress and isolation of the pandemic. For others, the pandemic is not the worst thing that has ever happened to us. 

Increase your resiliency by checking in with yourself:

  • Be still, pause and take a breath.
  • Take note of your feelings. (What are your emotions? Sad, happy, angry, confused?)
  • Take note of your thoughts. (Are your thoughts clear or cluttered? Are they focused or racing?)
  • Take note of how your body feels. (Is your heart racing? Does your stomach hurt?)

This approach is both preventative – it helps prevent our feelings of stress, and reactive —it helps us bounce back from adversity, rather than staying stuck. It’s helpful to balance your negative thoughts with positive thoughts so that you can move away from the fear-based, scarcity mindset. Crowd out the bad with the good. 

How do coping strategies prevent or manage stress?

Our body’s stress response activates under fear and shock. We’re built so that when we were being chased by predators, we could quickly respond. 

But, the antidote to fear and shock is routine, familiarity and rhythm. It’s important for us to develop coping strategies that act as the routine, familiarity and rhythm we need in those fearful and shocking moments. 

To manage stress, it’s important to build a “toolbox” of coping strategies that become familiar to help counteract our stress response. These familiar actions give a clue to our stress response that we’re back in a spot we know and that we don’t have to be scared anymore. Meditation and breath work are popular options.

But so is the practice of gratitude. Here are 7 tips to begin your gratitude practice:

Reduce expectations: Understand that benefits will add up over time
Start small: Try 30 seconds daily for a week, then increase to one minute, etc. Need support? Try apps like Calm or Headspace that will help guide your mindfulness practice
Choose the timing: Identify the best time of the day to be able to access more calm
Use your senses: Consider aromatherapy, guided imagery or a weighted blanket to assist
Practice gratitude: Ask yourself:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • What do I love in my life?
  • What am I thankful for?

Cultivate self-compassion: Observe with compassion rather than judgment
Be yourself: When do you feel best? How do you like to feel? Do you prefer to write, share with others or just silently think? Personalize your preferred tool of relaxation, repair and restoration.

How do you manage the stress and disappointment that our country is entering another COVID wave due to vaccination hesitancy?

These feelings signal a need for more attention and care toward self and are not something to squash, hide or even attempt to dismiss; they are signals that we need support. If you’re feeling disappointed, it’s helpful to express this feeling to a trusted friend, partner, companion or support person to receive validation. If we can self-validate, that can also be powerful and healing but bigger feelings often need others’ support.

If you’re wondering how best to talk to people about vaccine hesitancy here is my advice: a response to apathy is non-sensical. We may feel we need to rile someone up and conflict with them to ignite a response, but this is not effective. We have to offer support and solutions to problem solve the specifics of the resistance. For instance, we might offer a ride, help schedule an appointment, locate vaccination sites or go with the person for support. People already know we want them to be vaccinated to support the safety of the community, often we have to help them with the tiny hurdles along the way to reduce apathy.

Lastly, there is hope. This phase of the pandemic is just that – a phase – it’s a moment in time and it’s going to pass. We can help it pass by being thoughtful and intentional about what we’re doing. The most effective way to move through this phase of the pandemic, is to ask for help and be in community with others.