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Antidotes for COVID's Chronic Stress, Trauma, and Fatigue

If you’re struggling and feeling drained, you’re in abundant company.

Key points

  • Whenever we’re exposed to a stressor―whether directly or even indirectly―the body's fight-or-flight response activates.
  • Our bodies respond the same way regardless of whether it’s an actual imminent threat to our life/safety or one that we merely perceive.
  • When our stress systems are chronically activated—as they have been during the pandemic—our bodies start to experience greater wear and tear.
Source: pisauikan/Pixabay
Source: pisauikan/Pixabay

For an all-too-brief period just a short while ago in the U.S., the light toward the end of the coronavirus tunnel seemed to be ever brighter and it looked as though we were getting ready to come out on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. A return to a semblance of normality seemed close at hand and then, with the recent resurgence in the infection rate, essentially evaporated.

With questions about vaccine efficacy and vaccine refusal, mutations, and breakthrough infections primarily due to the delta variant, a dramatic increase in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths, along with the return of mask mandates and other restrictions, our long national public health nightmare with its pervasive uncertainty and dis-ease persists.

None of us has been immune to the chronic stress and some form of trauma connected to the pandemic. Many people experienced direct trauma—they got sick themselves, or a significant other or someone they know was diagnosed with COVID-19 or died from it. As the result of the enduring threat that we or those we care about could become seriously ill and potentially die, our nervous systems have been stuck on high alert for far too long.

This has taken an enormous toll on our mental/behavioral health in the forms of anxiety, fear, sadness, loss, depression, frustration, anger, and alcohol and other drug use, as well as our physical health―wearing down our immune systems and scrambling our circadian rhythms. It’s no wonder so many of us are emotionally and physically exhausted. The recent expiration of eviction moratoriums at national and state levels, along with federally expanded unemployment benefits, will only add to the chronic stress and trauma experienced by perhaps hundreds of thousands of individuals and families.

When we’re exposed to a stressor―whether directly or even indirectly as we are through the media―the body's fight-or-flight response activates. This is our body’s way of dealing with a threat or potential threat. Our bodies respond the same way regardless of whether it’s an actual imminent threat to our life/safety or one that we merely perceive based on our thoughts and the stories our thoughts create. Our physiology prepares to run or throw down for the purpose of self-protection and survival.

When we are repeatedly exposed to a stressor it becomes chronic stress, which can lead to a depressed mood, insomnia, and fatigue as the body goes into survival mode, and without time to recover, this depletes our mental and physical energy. When our stress systems are chronically activated—as they have been throughout the pandemic—our bodies start to experience greater wear and tear. This runs down our immune system (making us more vulnerable to illness, including COVID infection), affects our circadian rhythms, and impairs our digestive health.

Perhaps unexpectedly, often it isn’t until after a traumatic event, and we transition out of survival mode, that the physiological effects hit us the hardest. Research finds that most people don’t have the time or space to address their mental-emotional health needs during traumatic events such as natural disasters, because they are too busy figuring out how to just get through it.

Self-care antidotes for chronic stress-induced fatigue

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Sleep is as important to health, well-being, and recovery, as air, food, and water. Sleep aids in the restoration of the central nervous system, conservation of energy, and information processing. Without enough sleep, we are more likely to be anxious and irritable and have difficulty paying attention and concentrating. We become more susceptible to stress and to getting sick and our quality of life and health is diminished. As much as possible, it’s best to avoid caffeine and exercise at night and shut off all of your electronic devices an hour before bedtime.
  • Hydrate/drink water. Many people simply don’t drink enough water and are frequently in a state of mild dehydration that exacerbates stress and anxiety.
  • Be aware of your breathing and breathe intentionally, making your breathing slower and deeper. Under the influence of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, breathing tends to become more rapid and shallow, with some people sometimes even holding their breath for fractions of a second (in preparation for fight, flight, or freeze), which only increases stress and anxiety. Intentional breathing is the foundation of many mindfulness practices and multiple forms of meditation.
  • Get outside and spend some time in nature. As I wrote about last month, an increasing body of scientific research demonstrates the breadth of benefits of contact with nature on human health and well-being.
  • Among the most beneficial internal self-care practices is that of self-compassion. Self-compassion involves identifying and opening to your own suffering rather than trying to avoid it and exercising self-kindness in response to your inadequacies and failures instead of engaging in harsh judgments and self-criticism. It offers a non-judgmental understanding of your pain, so you appreciate your personal experience as part of the larger human experience. A simple self-compassion practice that you can do any time you find yourself struggling emotionally is known as the “Self-Compassion Break.” It has three stages:
  1. Be mindful: With non-judgmental acceptance, observe your pain and acknowledge it by saying to yourself something along the lines of, “This is a moment of suffering” or “I’m in pain” or “This is distress.”
  2. Remember that you’re not alone: All people experience discomfort and distress—it is part of our shared humanity. Reinforce this awareness by saying to yourself, “Suffering is a part of being human” or “All people experience emotional pain” or “Everyone struggles at times.”
  3. Be kind to yourself: Consciously express kindness to yourself, internally saying something like, “May I learn to accept myself as I am” or “May I be at peace, may I be at ease” or “May I be forgiving toward myself.”

Take it slow and make space for rest and recovery. Pace yourself to respect and stay within the limits of what you're realistically capable of doing without overdoing it and leaving yourself depleted. Alternate activity—be it physical or mental—with even brief periods of rest to give yourself the opportunity to recharge. When in doubt or you find yourself struggling, set smaller goals and test out new and different forms of coping.

Copyright 2021 Dan Mager, MSW.


Michele Many, Tonya Hansel, Michelle Moore, Zack Rosenburg & Howard Osofsky (2012) The Function of Avoidance in Improving the Understanding of Disaster Recovery, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 22:4, 436-450, DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2012.664974

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