• The chronic stress experienced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic can cause a multitude of other mental health challenges

  • Therapist Wendy Padley offers stress-busting tips to help you and your body find calm

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to support you here

A lot of has been written about over the last two years or so since the pandemic first arrived in the arrived and we went into the first lockdown. It was a time many of us had never known the likes of before, life became strange, uncertain, people lost jobs or were furloughed. We did not know what was going to happen, and we did not know how long it was going to last. We thought it would be over in a few weeks and be a distant memory by the summer. But that didn’t happen and at times it felt like an ongoing nightmare.

Here’s the thing about nightmares, whether dream based or real life – they produce stress responses. Acute stress response is well known – usually known as fight, flight or freeze. 

This same stress response can be prolonged which can turn into a low level ongoing stress response where the body constantly thinks it is under threat and behaves in the same way; the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the production of cortisol, increase in blood pressure, increases respiration. This is meant to help us by preparing the body to run away from or fight a threat. It is a response that has not changed since our hunter gatherer days when we might have had to run away from a bear. 

Nowadays there is almost certainly nothing physical to run away from or fight but our bodies deal with the stress in the same way. The fight or flight response had another function which allowed the body to dispel tension – for instance running used up the adrenalin pumped into the system and the body can then return to normal. We can see this in animals when they are threatened, running way or fighting and/or a period of shaking and sleeping. 

The problem for us is that the body is having the same stress response but the threat is uncertain – there is nothing to fight and nothing to run away from. There is no new way of responding to this stress. 

Covid-19 and its impact is not a normal fight or flight situation. It has been uncertain from the beginning, and one thing humans do not like is uncertainty. We have various ways of trying to manage the uncertainty. Celik and Kose (2021) describe how in day to day life we try and minimise uncertainty and its consequences wherever possible, and we have various ways of trying to do this. Typical are responses such as substance use, gambling, compulsive buying, even excessive us of social media. 

Is this sounding familiar? What we are trying to do when taking part in this behaviours is trying to introduce some level of control over uncertainty. These things also stimulate dopamine hits which feel good. It doesn't last, however, and the stress response continues when we encounter our next stressor. It can feel like a continuous cycle and the longer it continues the more it might feel like the cycle cannot be broken.

Add to these behaviours symptoms such as interrupted sleep or sleeplessness, nightmares, increased chronic anxiety, mood swings, irritability, and inability to concentrate or relax, and the stress can feel overwhelming. This is what some people experienced – and are still experiencing  – after the pandemic began.    

The good news is that this is not a permanent state. Even though it has felt a long to for many to be in such a state, it can pass when the stress response begins to return to normal. Having patience with yourself is important, as can establishing some routines to help you relax. Now is a good time to try out a mediation app, or some gentle yoga. Exercise can improve quality of sleep. 

What you can do

  • Recognise that you and your body are under stress – once you understand that what you are feeling is a stress response, your experiences make a lot more sense. 
  • Acknowledge that you may not be up to your usual level of functioning. This is normal, and the more you try and behave ‘normally’ the more stressed  you will feel.
  • Don't beat yourself up. Having a stress response does not mean you are weak or have no will power. It means that your body and mind are responding normally to an abnormal situation. 
  • Try and have regular breaks in your day every hours or so, perhaps just five minutes. Try and have a proper lunch break. Your body needs regular times to try and adjust to a lower level of stress.
  • Give yourself some time to adjust – you cannot just go ‘back normal’. There is no new normal because you may not yet know what this is. 
  • Take things one day at a time – there may be good days and bad days. 
  • Give yourself some extra TLC, whatever this means for you. And if you don’t know what this means for you, now is the time to find out. Often things that occupy the mind such as repetitive crafts can be helpful to calm the mind and nervous system. 

Wendy Padley is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Leicestershire and online

Further reading

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

How to take control of catastrophising

Doomscrolling: is reading the news bad for my mental health?

What's the tension in your body trying to tell you?

5 ways to stop worrying