Did COVID-19 Give Way to a Stress Pandemic? A Psychologist Weighs In

Photo: Stocksy/Sergey Filimonov
Let’s talk about stress. Of course, stress is a natural part of life—working, parenting, and all types of relationships bring it in spades— but the past few years seem to have upped the ante in terms of how tense, frightened, and anxious Americans are feeling in their daily lives, possibly even giving way to a stress pandemic. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) gives us a glance at the worries keeping us up at night with its annual Stress in America™ survey. Let’s just say it’s been a tense ride ever since news started trickling in about COVID-19 three years ago.

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It’s no secret that 2020 brought new challenges, like avoiding a deadly virus while managing careers and kids’ classes from the kitchen table. And let’s not forget stressing about finding toilet paper, the right way to disinfect groceries, and which masks provided protection when a bandana didn’t cut it.

With all that mostly behind us, we wonder, are we better off today or did COVID actually spin us into a stress pandemic?

First, a look back at the mind-boggling stressors in 2020

The 2020 stress results showed that the COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on parents. They worried about the long-term academic, social, and emotional effects on their kids. There was concern about the government’s response to COVID-19 and apprehension about opening the country too soon.

Other stressors included the economy, money, loss of loved ones, grief, racial discrimination, civil unrest, police violence, a hostile political environment, a mental health crisis, availability of basic needs, and worry that the future of the nation looked bleak.

In the spring of 2020, 70 percent of adults were stressed about the economy and work (up from 46 percent in 2019 and higher than the 2008 recession stress at 69 percent). Stress about the future of our nation post-George Floyd’s death was the highest ever reported at 83 percent compared to the previous high of 69 percent in 2018. By the summer of 2020, two in three Black Americans felt stressed by discrimination.

Most Americans said 2020 was the lowest point in the nation’s history. More than 71 percent of Americans regardless of race said police violence toward minorities brought significant stress. In October, the APA stated the U.S. faced a mental health crisis that could have consequences for years to come. And before the 2020 presidential election, 68 percent of adults said the political climate was a source of stress, compared to 52 percent in the 2016 presidential election.

Needless to say—that’s a lot of stress. Looking back from 2022, many of those stressors remain a big part of our lives. The good news is people have largely moved on from the intense fear of dying from COVID-19. The not-so-good news is that new worries have been tacked on to our already existing stressors around financial concerns, racial discrimination, and political tension.

Has stress that's piled on in 2022 led to an actual stress pandemic?

According to the APA, more stress was “piled on” in 2022. The top two reported stressors in the March poll were inflation—rising gas prices, energy bills, and supply chain issues—and the war in Ukraine, particularly fear of Russian cyberattacks and nuclear war threats. All pretty weighty stuff. The economy and money distress were already concerns in 2020, but the Ukraine war escalated them even further.

While many people have moved on from the pandemic, parents are still worried about the long-term effects COVID-19 may have on their kids. Add to that a weariness around crime and the dire view of the state of the nation. Racial discrimination is still top of mind, along with violence—including mass shootings—and a hostile political environment.

By late summer there were more stressors. Seventy percent of adults felt their rights were under attack. Many adults reported external stress outside of their control impacted their mental health and day-to-day functioning. They said they were unmotivated, forgetful, and had difficulty making decisions. Roughly 34 percent said they were overwhelmed most days. A mental health crisis is even affecting physical health (including fatigue and unhealthy drinking), as many people are still grieving the loss of loved ones and missed milestones.

So here we are—and it’s no surprise we’re all still feeling stressed as hell. “There is a stress pandemic and COVID contributed to it, but I don’t think it was the only cause. We had one global crisis that rolled into the next, threw in an election cycle and a war—big traumas for a generation, so we are changed as a society. We’ve changed partially because some of the structures and outlets we had in place prior to the pandemic, mostly relationships and a sense of social cohesiveness and unity, have not entirely returned and that hasn’t helped people in this country,” says Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, MHA, clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School and founder of Priority Wellness Group.

So, how do you cope with stressors outside of your control?

It’s pretty impossible to block out tough-to-fix societal issues, like the war in Ukraine, inflation, severely restricted reproductive rights, racial discrimination, mass shootings, and the list goes on. “We can only sustain so much trauma and uncertainty. Resilience in general is the ability to bounce back after setbacks,” Dr. Datillo says. But there is another skill you can practice to manage the stress that pops up due to these world events that you can’t control. “Uncertainty resilience is developing the skills to deal with uncertainty better,” says Dr. Dattilo, and it involves tweaking your own behavior and mindset.

“Uncertainty and unpredictability are prime conditions for anxiety to thrive. Practicing mindfulness is a great tool to increase your ability to tolerate what you can’t control. Focusing your attention on the present, instead of the future, helps regulate emotions and improve your ability to identify things in your life that you can be assured of, at least in that moment,” says Dr. Datillo.

Here are her five tips to keep your stress levels in check—whether in a stress pandemic or not.

  1. Making a list of things you are certain of right now. For example, I am certain that the sky is blue. I am certain that the sun is shining. I am certain that I am here. I am certain that we will get through this.
  2. Getting out of your headspace and into your physical surroundings by activating your senses. For example, feeling your feet on the ground, holding onto an object, or pressing your hand against your chest.
  3. Creating routines for more predictability and structure in your life. Morning, mealtime, and bedtime routines can help soothe anxiety by reminding you that your behavior is within your control.
  4. Refraining from assuming the worst, by changing our “What if?” thinking to a “What if? Well, then,” technique that involves answering the question and coming up with a plan. “What if things never return to normal? Well, that would be difficult to accept, but we will adapt and create our own new normal” Or, “What if it’s hard? Well, it probably will be, but we’ve handled hard things before, and we will handle this too.”
  5. Being the healthiest version of yourself mentally and physically with self-care. Exercise, maintain social connections, foster relationships, have fun, play, meditate, relax, and get good sleep. These are the pillars of well-being that help us cope with stressors.

Ultimately, the goal of each of these techniques is to develop a greater sense of self-reliance, minimize self-doubt, and cultivate more self-confidence, Dr. Datillo says. “Confidence doesn’t come from telling ourselves that the bad thing we imagine won’t happen, it comes from reassuring ourselves that even if the bad thing we imagine happens, we can handle it.”

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