How the pandemic has changed the way we deal with stress

Published April 9, 2021, 12:12 AM

by AA Patawaran

How has the pandemic changed us? I wish I could wax romantic like Elizabeth Barrett Browning over all that we have lost — friends and family, our way of life, the world as we knew it.

What’s different now — because we have yet to see the end of the pandemic or because it is also possible (God forbid!) we have yet to see the worst of it — is that while we are already in grief, we are also in fear of more things to grieve for in the near future.

Constant now, as always, is change, but change is stressful, even when it’s positive, even when it involves additions like births, a promotion, a new house, making friends.

No sooner than we realized in early 2020 that COVID-19 was a problem global in scope, expansive in its time frame, and apocalyptic in its effects had a meme gone viral, carrying a simple, striking message. It said, “Get it into your head that we can no longer be the same.”

While no one is exempt from suffering, we know that problems like most things come and go. But COVID-19 came and, over a year later, it hasn’t shown any sign of leaving. And we can’t deal the same way we used to because this particular problem demands a new set of coping mechanisms.

We can’t just look for a shoulder to cry on when we’re feeling blue, at least not outside our household. (It’s not safe.) We can’t just fly to our favorite beach or take a road trip to the countryside. (There are restrictions against non-essential travel and traveling to avoid an emotional meltdown is not considered essential.) We can’t just drown our sorrows. (The bars are closed.) We can’t just go to church. (Mass gatherings are prohibited.) We can’t even run to mama (unless she lives with us).

Until this pandemic, for generations since World War II, we had re-designed our lives so we could have easy and convenient access to stress relief, escape, or denial. We had built a world full of escapist fantasies with giant theaters, colossal malls, interconnected cities and countries, bars and clubs and restaurants big enough for multitudes, international airports and sea ports the size of a metropolis. Worse, we had infringed more and more into the wild, flattening mountains, reclaiming oceans, clearing forests to build denser cities packed with skyscraping condominiums.

But do not sulk. There is no point in that. It will only depress your immune system. That’s also a coping mechanism we should toss—throwing caution to the wind when we’ve had enough. After months of isolation, we can’t just run out of the house and scream. If we must scream, we must do so beneath a mask.

That’s right. Stress as we know it has never been so sweeping and protracted. Our old adaptive strategies no longer apply. The result? Even more stress that manifests as anxiety, which, in turn, compromises the immune system, resulting in a sore throat or nausea, even the runs. And so the fear of having caught COVID-19 kicks in, leaving us more vulnerable. It’s an endless loop.

On the bright side, social isolation has brought us up close and personal with the best and the worst of who we are. We are forced to take stock of our lives, revaluate our values, rearrange our priorities.

Months into the pandemic last year, when adrenaline was high, compassion was in abundant supply, and our hopes had not dissipated, we did say we would be kinder, more sensitive, more mindful of each other, even more green.

Bruised and battered by an enemy as insidious as it is invisible, we’re not any better, kinder, stronger, or greener now. But with more of us realizing that life is short, we are getting there. The pandemic has given us reason to stop putting off what we used to hold back—getting married, breaking up, quitting jobs that no longer make us happy, expressing ourselves. Spirituality has become more personal. Churches, temples, and mosques are shuttered, so we are finding more ways to commune with our higher selves through meditation, yoga, mindful silence, and deep solitude. We are also more aware of our mental health. We’ve learned how fragile it is.                                                     

What’s more, having spent so much time alone, we’ve learned to take it easy on ourselves, to love ourselves a little more.

There are no clear signs that COVID-19, like the Black Death of the 14th century, will lead to a Renaissance. Not yet. Right now, we are in a deep ocean of stress, flailing. But life will get better, as long as we manage to stay afloat until the pandemic is over.