Maybe it’s a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one or a divorce, or even a happy event such as a vacation or the birth of a child. They all cause varying levels of stress, according to a scale commonly used by mental health professionals.
And then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been the cause of many other sources of stress for months now.
Illness or death? For many thousands of people, the answer is yes.
Loss of job or other financial changes? Also yes.
Change of work conditions, living conditions, or social interactions? Check, check and double-check.
Regardless of the source of stress, following a few self-care practices can help you to cope. If self-care is not enough, mental-health professionals are available to help you.
How We React to Stress
“Stress is anything that causes a marked change in your emotional or psychological reaction to day-to-day life,” says David Greenspan, MD, Chair of Psychiatry for Einstein Healthcare Network.
Eventually, most people adapt, he says, but in the meantime stress can cause the heart rate to speed up, increase the load on the brain because we can’t run on “automatic pilot,” and lead to emotional withdrawal or perhaps aggression or anger.
“Then there are some things like COVID, which has actually presented an ongoing burden of stress by causing a constant need to adapt to a new way of being almost from the beginning,” Dr. Greenspan says.
He offers these tips for taking care of yourself in times like these:
- Make sure you give yourself time to get a good night’s sleep.
- Exercise and eat a healthy diet.
- Stay involved with friends and family in a safe manner – physically distanced and masked or virtually.
- Learn and practice coping skills like yoga or mindfulness.
- Greatly limit, or eliminate, social media and TV news.
- Avoid drugs or alcohol as aids to help with distress, fatigue, or sleep.
“Remember,” he says, “you are no good to anyone if you are not good to yourself.”
Adapting to Stress
People are wired to be pretty adaptive, Dr. Greenspan notes. “We’re a surviving species because we’ve been able to adapt to changes. And so most of the literature suggests that once you’re not having to attend to every little detail, you’re no longer really having stress. You’ve adjusted. You’ve made the adaptation.”
Of course, one concern that arises from adapting to new circumstances is that people may become less alert than they need to be, such as during a pandemic, he says.
“We stop paying so much attention,” he explains. “I worry that some people may start doing things more carelessly, or get tired and start to rethink the balance of risk and benefit of activities such as eating in a restaurant. So there could be this interpersonal stress between people as we try to decide what we’re going to do together.”
Know the Warning Signs
Sometimes, though, people don’t adapt to stress and move on. Sometimes things just get worse. If that happens, Dr. Greenspan says, turning to professionals can really help.
Consider getting help if you have any of the changes below and they are frightening to you; disrupt your work, school or home life; or persist for two weeks or more.
- You feel overwhelmed, depressed or hopeless.
- You get into more arguments or are more irritable.
- You are unable to stop or control worrying.
- You have more difficulty making decisions.
- You have nightmares or troubling thoughts that won’t stop.
- You no longer have fun or get work done.
- You have changes in sleep, energy or appetite.
- You have concerns that you have tried to avoid thinking about or even go out of your way to avoid situations that remind you of them.
- You have thought about killing yourself.
- You have increased your use of alcohol or drugs, including prescription drugs, without a doctor’s advice.
“If you have thoughts of suicide,” Dr. Greenspan emphasizes, “do not wait two weeks. Pick up the phone and call somebody.”
Where to Seek Help
Einstein Healthcare Network has many resources for those who are looking for help in coping with emotional distress. Call one of these numbers to set up an appointment or get help right now.
- For 24-hour emergency care, call 215-951-8300.
- For inpatient admissions, call 215-456-3209.
- For outpatient appointments, call 215-456-9850.
- For LGBTQ+ specific outpatient care, call 215-420-0989.
Learn more about Einstein Mental & Behavioral Health Services.