The Covid-19 pandemic has been associated with increased stress for many individuals. Such stress can interfere with sleep, causing us to feel exhausted and exacerbating burnout. There are also long-term considerations. Long-term, but low-intensity stress can cause chronic activation of the stress response system, which is associated with increased risk for a variety of health issues. To fully understand this association, first it is important to discuss how the stress response evolved.
Evolution and Structure of the Stress Response
The stress response evolved as a mechanism to protect humans from imminent danger, and help us to escape and avoid life-threatening situations. This stress response has two components.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for a fast-acting stress response, and is associated with classic symptoms of stress and the “fight or flight” response. This branch of the stress response includes the release of adrenaline and other hormones. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system causes sweaty palms, a racing heart, and a variety of other physiological impacts. The purpose of this first branch is to prepare us to escape a dangerous situation.
The second branch of the stress response involves hormones and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Axis (HPA), which is responsible for controlling the body’s release of cortisol. This branch is slower acting, and has a longer impact. Cortisol is released into the bloodstream in response to stress, and has a variety of physiological effects. Once cortisol reaches high enough levels in the bloodstream, the pathway is shut off, and the stress response is terminated. This branch of the stress response is important for helping us recover from the stressor, and prepare for any future dangerous situations.
The Problem with Chronic Stress
Problems arise from the fact that our stress response evolved to help us survive life in near-death situations such as being chased by a lion. It evolved to have a rapid onset and to terminate quickly afterwards. In the modern context, the stress response is activated in response to psychosocial stressors as well. Activation due to psychosocial stressors is often long-term. High enough levels of cortisol in the blood trigger the system to shut down so that when our bodies are faced with chronic, low-level stress our cortisol levels never are quite high enough to cause the system to shut down, causing our stress response to continue unregulated.
As a result, we are faced with a unique situation as humans in which our chronic low-level activation of the stress response causes constant cortisol elevation in our bodies. This constant release of cortisol causes a dysregulation of the HPA, and has been associated with an increased susceptibility to a variety of chronic illnesses and problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive issues, weight gain, diabetes, and memory problems. What can we do to reduce our stress levels and help combat issues caused by chronic stress?
Ways to Combat Stress
Acute exercise has been associated with regulating chronic stress responses2 . As little as 20 minutes a day of moderate exercise can help alleviate negative effects of chronic stress. Getting better sleep has also been associated with reducing the effects of chronic stress. Social support, relaxation, and therapy also all have been shown to be effective in combating the effects of chronic stress 5 . Meditation has been shown to reduce damaging effects of chronic stress, and improve brain health. Studies have linked meditation to increased wellbeing. One way in which chronic stress damages the brain is through damaging plasticity, and destroying these connections between neurons. 4 Meditation helps improve brain plasticity, which refers to the ability of the neurons in the brain to form connections with each other. Meditation helps to rebuild the connections which have been damaged. This (https://www.c3health.org/blog/mindfulness-meditation/ ) (note: I will be hyperlinking the C3 article to the word “this”) link provides instructions and other resources for information on various types of meditation.
Looking Beyond Covid-19
Although the stress and psychosocial tolls of the pandemic often seem overwhelming, it is important to realize that prior research on past mass traumas, including terrorist attacks and ecological disasters, indicate that society has a unique capacity for resilience 3 . The most effective way to combat chronic stress and the damaging effects is to remove the stressor. Although removing the stressors from the pandemic may have seemed a futile effort even a year ago, we now find ourselves at the cusp of a worldwide vaccination programme which should see the pandemic come to a halt, and associated stress halt with it.
- https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/06/992401123/if-your-brain-feels-foggy-and-y oure-tired-all-the-time-youre-not-alone
- Davidson, R., McEwen, B. Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nat Neurosci 15, 689–695 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3093
- https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-the-face-adversity/201202/ways-manage-chronic-st ress