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3 Ways to Fight Pandemic Stress in the New Year

Taking care of yourself starts with noticing the stressors that are challenging you most.

Dealing with pandemic stress in New Year
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

By now, everyone is familiar with the term “Covid fatigue,” which describes the weariness that comes from having navigated the wild roller coaster that defined most of 2020. That feeling is valid, and I’d wager it’s nearly universal. We’re all tired of living under the added pressure, worry and for too many, illness and grief.

Stress manifests itself differently in everybody and in every body. As the year draws to a close, it’s a good time to take a moment to recognize some ways in which the particular challenges of the pandemic could be affecting your mind and body—and recommit to habits and practices that can help ease the load.

Below is some context and some tips for coping with the top three pandemic-era stress signals. But it’s important to first mention that if any of the issues discussed feel unmanageable or overwhelming in your life, that you never hesitate to reach out for support to a counselor, clergy member, close friend or medical professional.

1)  Difficulty Concentrating

There are a number of reasons any of us might have a harder time than usual focusing on a task, even a pleasurable one like reading a good book. One is that psychologists acknowledge that attention is a limited resource. With constantly-unfolding information to understand and decisions to make, we might simply not have enough attention to devote to other tasks. 

Also, the stress-alert system in our brain, led by the brain structure called the amygdala, is a rapid-response system. If your amygdala is chronically active, taking in and processing basic safety information, your brain may have less ability to calm down and focus. 

What to DoMeet yourself where you are by scaling way back on your expectations for yourself. Try to avoid multi-tasking if you can; focus on one thing at a time. And set small, measurable and achievable goals like, “respond to five emails before noon” rather than general goals like, “Manage emails.” 

2)  Appetite Changes

Some of us respond to stress by heading for the fridge, while others lose the joy of eating when we’re anxious or overwhelmed. Recognizing which pattern you tend toward is the first step in noticing if the chronic stress of the pandemic is impacting your appetite. 

Even if you are not diabetic, your body’s relationship with insulin might be the culprit. “During chronic stress, excessive hunger can be caused by insulin resistance, which causes our blood sugar levels to remain high even though the stressful event has passed,” says Julie Hill, a functional nutritionist and dietician with Lee Health. “This can lead to uncontrolled hunger or no appetite at all.”

What to Do: Hill recommends building “rest-and-digest” practices into your eating routine to take down the overall impact of stress on your appetite. Take some slow, deep breaths before eating, chew slowly and spend a quiet moment noticing how your body feels after eating. 

3)  Sleep Changes

Another manifestation of stress, another cutesy Covid name: “coronasonmia.” From the earliest days of the pandemic, sleep disturbances—either an inability to get or stay asleep or a sudden need for more sleep—have become measurably more common (and they were plenty common before). 

In addition to the chronic worry that leads to sleepless nights, our limited options for activities has an impact. “When our lives become so repetitive, the lack of stimulation and activities contributes to poor sleep,” Angela Drake, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UC Davis said in September.

What to Do: Sleep hygiene habits are the same during high-stress times as during “normal” times. Keep as consistent a bedtime routine as possible, avoid screens in the bedroom, don’t eat too close to bedtime, try to steer clear from news media or other stressors late at night.

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