2020 has been a truly unique year for most of us. Those in older generations may not feel the same shock that those in the 40 and under age groups do, because truly, there is nothing new under the sun. But for many of us, the global shut-downs because of a pandemic combined with the racial and political tensions that have overtaken news media in the last 7 months have taken a toll on our physical and mental health. Some of you reading this may start noticing a tightness in your chest simply by reflecting on those few sentences, which gives you some indication of the topic at hand today. Let’s talk about stress.
What is stress? I particularly like the definition provided by the Cleveland Clinic: “Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.” Are you able to tell when your body is having a stress response? Many people are surprised to learn that struggling with anxiety doesn’t always mean your thoughts are racing away from you, you’re biting your nails to the quick or having outright panic attacks on the regular. Certainly, those things are symptoms of an anxiety problem, but anxiety can actually present in much more subtle, difficult-to-identify ways. Anxiety is one of the only mental health disorders that can show up with only somatic symptoms, which are physical symptoms that would generally cause you to call your medical doctor. When you go to the doctor complaining of constant fatigue, brain fog, muscle tension (pain), headaches, insomnia, nausea, digestive distress or even new acne or skin rash problems, they may have difficulty nailing down a diagnosis. And why? Because those are all physical manifestations of chronic anxiety.
Another symptom I’m seeing more of in my counseling practice lately is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance (also called hyperarousal) is essentially a state of being “on edge” most of the time. The brain’s amygdala (part of the limbic area in the temporal lobe, which manages the fear response) is always switched on, so the brain is signaling the body that there is a threat, whether real or imagined. This starts a cascade of neurochemical reactions in your body, pumping cortisol into your blood, keeping adrenaline coursing, numbing pain, raising blood pressure, causing tension in your muscles as your body prepares to “fight” or “flee”. Hypervigilance is commonly seen in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which we most obviously associate with active duty military members and veterans returning from war. It’s also prevalent in lower income communities where incidences of neighborhood violence, drug culture and domestic abuse run rampant. And now, in 2020, counselors are seeing more and more people come in for therapy with the same hypervigilance that previously was only seen in combat veterans or those having experienced another life-threatening trauma.
In my opinion, this is largely because of how COVID-19 has been personified by government officials and the loudest medical professionals in the media. That means these people are giving COVID-19, a virus, human characteristics. By making statements like, “COVID-19 is lurking around every corner” or “COVID-19 wants you to spread it to your friends and family,” or “COVID-19 is the common enemy”, these officials assign motive, emotion and intention to a virus, which just doesn’t have the same capacity for actual malicious intent as a person. By repeating these messages and the associated, “Wear a mask; save lives!”, the leaders of our nation make the American public believe that this invisible terrorist is floating on the air particles in every building or waiting to pounce on every Walmart shopper’s shoulder, and their only defense is a cotton face mask. This creates a constant perceived threat from which there is apparently no escape. Add to that violent political tensions, and we are seeing more and more people with debilitating anxiety and chronic hypervigilance, feeling like there is no hope to regain a sense of safety and confidence in this world.
(Now, just to be clear, I know and understand the reality of this new virus and it’s highly contagious qualities. I won’t denigrate anyone’s experience with COVID-19. However, living in state of perpetual fear is just not an option for me, or for anyone else who desires to be truly healthy and well-balanced in life.)
The result of this persistent hypervigilance is chronic anxiety and a physical breakdown of the body. When your body is always in defense mode because of perpetual fear, many processes are interrupted or become dysregulated. The adrenals are overworked with the constant production of cortisol and may become fatigued, which leaves you “wired and tired”; wired at night causing insomnia, and tired in the morning, making it difficult to get out of bed and accomplish the day’s tasks. The endocrine system stops producing hormones the right way (which is why when under great stress for long periods, many women stop menstruating), and can even lead to thyroid problems, such as Hashimotos Thyroiditis. When our endocrine system is out of whack, our sleep suffers. Did you know that one of the benefits of REM sleep is the processing of stressful events? God designed our bodies to process stress even while we sleep; but if we aren’t able to get to that REM stage, that stress continues to build. It’s a vicious cycle. Similarly, digestion is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which means that proper digestion can only happen when we are relaxed. When our digestive system is disrupted, we experience symptoms that usually get diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome – gas and bloating, diarrhea and constipation, indigestion and nausea. This also means our food isn’t being broken down and made useful to our bodies, so we experience nutrient deficiencies. Add to that the “stress eating” most of us partake in, and you have the recipe for gut dysbiosis and gut permeability on top of the poor digestion. And where there is poor digestion, there is poor mental health. Even worse, when chronic hypervigilance is left unaddressed, the mental health problems get worse. It’s not uncommon for a person who has lived in a state of chronic hyperarousal to progress to having psychotic symptoms. Simply put, with this degree of constant anxiety, our brains can’t function. It is truly in our best interest as a nation to put an end to the COVID19 boogeyman mentality.
There is a growing mental health crisis in our nation. Rates of depression, anxiety and related problems (such as suicidal ideation) are up, with no indication that they will fall anytime soon. Americans are struggling to get their heads above the COVID19 cloud of a “terrorist” virus, job loss, economic hardship, and loneliess. Physically and mentally, we are seeing a breakdown. So what can we do to stop this crazy train?
- Stop personifying the COVID19 virus. This virus does not have malicious intent. It is not lurking around waiting to pounce and destroy. It’s a virus like a hundred others that will impact human life over the course of time. So when you hear someone on the news – a reporter, a doctor, your governor – say something like “COVID19 is trying to wear us down, we can’t let it win! Stay at home!” Remind yourself that the virus is not a tiny terrorist; it’s a thing creating a set of circumstances we have to navigate, but it is not “out to get you.” It’s just a virus. Change the running monologue in your mind.
- Focus on the things you can control. Make a plan to stop stress-eating, to get outside every day, and to move your body. Remind yourself to take care of what’s right in front of you; don’t borrow trouble.
- Attend to your sleep hygiene. Clear your bedroom of electronics – it should be an oasis for rest only; not a place for work or social media obsessing. Those all-night Netflix binges reminiscent of your college days may seem harmless at the time, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. No screens for at least one hour before bed; blue lights interrupt our natural circadian rhythm, which regulates all of our bodily systems – hormone regulation, digestion, and metabolism to name a few. Begin to align your body clock with the rising and setting of the sun, winding down each day and going to sleep at the same time every night to support these systems and correct adrenal fatigue.
- Meditate on things that are true. In Colossians 3:2, Paul tells us to “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” This is a command to have an eternal perspective as we make our way through this life. There’s an old hymn based on David’s prayer in Psalm 31 called “Our Times are In Thy Hands”. Make these words the plea of your heart when you find yourself weary and anxious.