Now that it’s day who-even-knows-anymore in the coronavirus pandemic, and the initial shock of it all is starting to wear off, you might find yourself distracted by a barrage of mental and physical symptoms that weren’t as prominent back when panic-induced toilet-paper hoarding was hogging your attention.
This is because the prolonged levels of anxiety we’ve been enduring the last few months are straight-up wearing us down.
“The early optimism and community support begins to erode as the mind and body struggle to manage the persistent stress and sense of being out of control,” said Kimberly Johnson, an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at Touro College in Bay Shore, New York. “Couple this with feelings of grief, both tangible and intangible, and people have less resources with which to deal with life.”
Much of what we’re feeling, both emotionally and physically, are normal responses to an abnormal event, Johnson added. But the prolonged effects can be damaging if we’re not aware of them and make an effort to mitigate them (translation: self-care).
To make changes, it can be helpful to understand how the body — particularly the brain — responds to stress and change. Here’s what you should know.
Uncertainty Activates The Fight-Or-Flight Response
The pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders are things none of us have experienced before, so the brain doesn’t have data from past experiences that it can draw from to make informed decisions.
“Uncertainty is a major trigger of stress that can boil over into clinically significant levels of anxiety,” said David A. Merrill, a psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.
Uncertainty activates the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, which prepares the body to fight a threat or flee from one. Once that threat is dealt with, the mind and body go back to their regularly scheduled programming.
But COVID-19 isn’t a temporary threat – at least not right now. So the ongoing stress, anxiety and worry (“Am I washing my hands enough?” “Cleaning surfaces enough?” “Going out too much?”) have sent the fight-or-flight response into overdrive.
Stress Can Make It Hard To Concentrate
Chronic stress leaves the brain swimming in the hormone cortisol, which research suggests can disrupt the functions of the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for attention span, decision-making, problem-solving and emotion regulation. Cue brain fog, apathy, indecisiveness and mood swings.
Isolation Triggers Restlessness, Loneliness And Depression
As a result of being quarantined, not only are we disconnected from the people we care about, many of us have also lost our jobs and are unable to do the things we’d normally do to blow off steam – either because we can’t afford to or because our go-to stress-busters are no longer an option (eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, hitting up a workout class).
“The problem here is that our cortisol levels are too high, while our dopamine (reward) and oxytocin (bonding) levels are low,” said Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
This leaves us more at risk of developing feelings of restlessness, loneliness and depression during quarantine, especially if we place a high value on social interactions, Celan said.
Chronic Stress Leads To Tingling, Digestive Problems And More
When the fight-or-flight response kicks in, it triggers physical reactions.
“Symptom clusters for this include racing or pounding heart, shortness of breath and sense of numbness or tingling, among others,” Merrill said.
Over a prolonged period of time, these reactions can cause significant physical wear and tear on the body.
“With the long haul of the quarantine, we’re seeing more lethargy, disrupted sleep and depression,” Merrill added. “These symptoms tend to negatively amplify each other.”
This is likely because there’s little separation between work (or the hunt for work) and home.
“Anecdotally, people are saying they’re working more and putting in longer hours,” Johnson said. “This is also true with essential workers – their home is often not the sanctuary it once was.”
Now that our routines are upended, and there are no longer cues from our environment that it’s time to decompress, our body has no idea when to take a breather. It’s as if our central nervous system has a foot on both the gas and brake pedals simultaneously.
To top it off, chronic stress has a tendency to physically manifest in the form of digestive issues (think bloating, gas, cramps, nausea).
“The onset of irritable bowel syndrome during something as life-altering as a pandemic or having to go into quarantine is purely from the mind-gut axis and the effect of stress on the gut,” said Niket Sonpal, a gastroenterologist and professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. “This change in cortisol and other neurotransmitters can lead to constipation, diarrhea or both.”
Personality Type May Affect How You Handle Quarantine
For people who consider themselves extroverts, the quarantine is causing anxiety and restlessness at the loss of broader social interactions and being out in the world. But that doesn’t necessarily mean introverts — who typically isolate themselves whether there’s a pandemic or not — aren’t experiencing their own spirals of angst.
“Although we might think of these personalities as different, their key objective is exactly the same, which is to maintain some sense of control and mastery in their world,” said organizational and consulting psychologist Richard Citrin, co-author of “The Resilience Advantage.”
Introverts do this by being more inwardly focused and isolating from people, “but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be around people, just that their level of interaction can be less,” Citrin said.
They might be missing the freedom to be alone in the crowded streets of the city they live in or meeting a friend for coffee. You don’t need to be a social butterfly to miss being out in the world.
From a work perspective, introverts might find themselves invigorated by working independently rather than in a busy, social office building. But Zoom meetings might cause them a significant amount of distress, and they might get lost in the shuffle.
Plus, being quarantined at home doesn’t mean being alone.
“For some introverts, their homes are always full, with no time or space to themselves,” Johnson said. “The constant stimuli might be overwhelming and increase their sense of anxiety and stress, with little opportunity to be inwardly contemplative or quiet.”
How To Nurture Your Body And Mind During Quarantine
There are ways to mitigate these issues. Try these suggestions from the experts.
Acknowledge The Uncertainty
Research suggests that confronting uncomfortable feelings and reassuring yourself can help you feel more in control of your life.
“Realizing you’ve made it this far through the crisis and you’re still ‘pushing back’ against the uncertainty can build up your tolerance for handling this situation,” Merrill said.
Get Into A Rhythm
“Following a schedule can help normalize your sleep and eating habits, which will lower your anxiety over time,” Merrill said.
The hints of predictability can act as emotional pillars to lean on and help you find a sense of stability during the daily grind.
Carve Out Time For Solitude
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the 24/7 social demands of your household, set aside consistent pockets of “me time,” with boundaries around being approached during this time, Celan said.
(For introverts or highly sensitive people who need to recharge more often, consider setting up a permanent “cave” you can retreat to at a moment’s notice.)
This can act as a signal to your body that it’s time to transition from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest.
Think Outside Yourself
Turning your attention to emotionally supporting others can act as a form of mindfulness that short-circuits your worries about uncertainty, while also offering up another layer of emotional connection to stave off feelings of loneliness. For example, text someone who may be alone or check in to see if your housebound neighbor needs groceries or your immunocompromised relative needs a prescription picked up.
You can also try loving-kindness meditation, a practice that involves mentally sending good vibes toward others through repeating a series of mantras. Research suggests this form of meditation reduces people’s focus on themselves, lowering symptoms of anxiety and depression in the process.
Find A Balance That Works For You
The most important thing is to listen to your body and honor how you feel.
If you’ve reached your isolation quota, but nobody’s available to chat, you can seek out connection through, say, group workouts on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram Live or other similar sources of community.
On the flip side, if you’re running into social or Zoom fatigue, you might want to take a “quality over quantity” approach instead, Celan said. Keep only your most important connections on the books in order to keep relationships strong yet steer clear of burnout.
Stay fueled by what’s always moved you most – whether that’s reading, writing, painting or other similar solo activities. It’s much easier for people to “get their mind off the stress of the pandemic, given they’re already used to enjoying the many at-home activities that are available to them,” Celan said.