‘3-Fold Stress’ Is Defining the Times and Making It Harder for All of Us To Cope

Photo: Getty Images/Martin dm
This entire year has been like the most heightened, prolonged case of the Sunday Scaries, a wave of perma-stress topped off with a profound fear of what tomorrow brings. It is a brutal way to live—and (wait for it) completely unprecedented. Although our country has no doubt endured times of extreme duress in the past, 2020 layers stressors one after another, in a way that feels endless. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Trauma and Stress acknowledges that there are at least three areas of life that make up a COVID-19 stress scale which makes this time particularly traumatic. Yes, traumatic.

Experts In This Article
  • Chrysalis Wright, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Central Florida
  • Nan Wise, PhD, licensed psychotherapist, cognitive neuroscientist, and certified sex therapist

The study sought to investigate and develop a measure for COVID-19 as traumatic stress, surveying a group of 1,374 participants from seven countries. The barometer of stress was included three dimensions: "threat/fear of infection and death," "economic hardship," and "disturbed routines/isolation." The verdict? The three elements each show correlations to factors commonly seen in PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression, which means that not only is taking care of one's mental health paramount right now. Here's what they entail:

COVID-19 Stress

The study defines this as fearing the threat of infection and death, something that can include a fear for ourselves, and a fear for our loved ones. (I have never been nicer to my age 60-something parents than I was after the first wave hit, you know?) Likewise, misinformation is constantly being disseminated during the pandemic, and having the facts can often help you feel more secure. It can help set your mind at ease, then, to continuously fact-check whatever COVID-19 news might give you pause, and that begins with looking at the source.

"This can be tricky, especially on social media where ‘friends’ like and share information that has come across their feed," Chrysalis Wright, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in media behavior, previously told Well+Good. "We are also presented with information on social media based on our previous usage and clicking patterns. For COVID-19 information, we need to make sure that the source is a reputable news source, the World Health Organization (WHO), or CDC."

If your anxiety and coronaphobia is extra terrifying, it might also help to look into accessible therapy resources.

Economic Stress

As of August, the unemployment rate was at 8.4 percent, a low compared to April's 14.7 percent (yay?), but a high compared to our pre-Corona numbers leveling at about 3.5 percent (boo). Compound this with worries about layoffs, cut backs, what's going to happen to indoor dining when the temps drop; we're all very frightened about the future of our financial health and the economy right now. Even if you lose your job, it can help to find moments to be present, reminding yourself that this situation will not be permanent.

"Getting let go or laid off, especially during an already high-anxiety moment, is very overwhelming," says Amanda Clayman, LCSW, financial therapist and Prudential’s Financial Wellness Advocate, previously told Well+Good. "But where you are now will not last forever. Know it’s not linear: Having a good day yesterday and a bad day today doesn’t mean you’re backsliding. This is what normal processing looks like. Take care of where you are today."

Traumatic Stress

This generally includes the disruption in our work lives—never thought I'd be using Zoom ever, let alone for six months straight—and our plans. We've seen weddings put off or put online, graduation ceremonies canceled and first years of college looking a little less intimate than years before. And even if nothing magnificent was supposed to happen to you in 2020, wouldn't be shocked if you're feeling lonely from social isolation, which is a big facet of this. The pain of not knowing when we can live is palpable.

"It powers something called the seeking system found in the lower brain," cognitive neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD previously told Well+Good. "When people can’t follow through on their plans, that whole seeking system gets frustrated, and when that happens, it’s not unusual for people to get flared up in anger, low-level frustration, and irritability."

And there are real barriers that are keeping many of from, say, jetting off to Paris. But there is a case for not postponing your plans if you can find a happy workaround.

"It’s about being realistic about where you are, what’s happening for your community, and how bad the outbreak is there," says mental-health counselor Kristen Groos, LPC. "It’s also being honest and true to yourself about what’s important to you."

Overall, the collective stress of COVID-19 has genuine features of mental health issues, and yeah, at the end of the day, trauma can't be resolved by a few quick tips. These all umbrella under fear of uncertainty, because it's hard to know when and how this will end. But what's become a mantra in my life, and maybe it could in yours, is this: this era will end. We just take care of ourselves the best we can in the meantime.

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