Over the last year, people around the world have been grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with stress as a result. Stress Awareness Month this April is possibly more important than ever as we find healthy ways to cope with the stress of the last year. Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist at The George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, explains the impact stress can have on other aspects of our health and shares his tips for managing stress.
Q: What are the most common factors that cause people stress?
Lieberman: We experience stress when expectations are placed on us — by ourselves and others — that push us too far. There are two factors that make stress particularly toxic. The first is feeling that we have little control over the situation we find ourselves in. If you’re in a car in a snowstorm, it’s less stressful to be the driver than the one sitting in the passenger seat. Both riders are in equal danger, but the driver has less stress.
The second factor is chronicity. We can manage difficult situations for brief periods. In fact, that kind of stress is good for you. But when we’re pushed beyond our comfortable limits for long periods of time, especially when we don’t know when it will end, the stress is much worse and becomes harmful.
Q: What kind of impact can stress have on someone's health?
Lieberman: Stress can make it difficult to fall asleep at night. Insomnia leads to weight gain, poor daytime performance, mood disturbances, increased motor vehicle accidents, and many other health problems. Stress can raise blood pressure. It can lead to “stress eating,” which may cause high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and weight gain. Many people drink more alcohol when they are stressed and some turn to illicit drugs, mistakenly believing that will provide relief. Stress can tire us out, so we skip exercising. Stress can cause or exacerbate mental illness. It can make us less kind and less supportive of those we love. In extreme circumstances, stress can contribute to abusive behaviors and violence.
Q: What are signs someone can look for to determine stress?
Lieberman: People generally know when they are feeling stressed, but they may be mistaken about how much they can manage. Usually, our friends and family can tell when we’re experiencing too much, because we start to act in uncharacteristic ways. We may become irritable or angry all the time. We may isolate ourselves, shutting ourselves off from others. We may drink more than usual, spend more time on screens than usual, or engage in other unhealthy behaviors.
Q: Are there behaviors people engage in that are not good for managing stress?
Lieberman: Drugs and alcohol are the worst. Spending lots of time watching screens is also a bad idea that will make one’s mood worse. Try not to stress eat.
Q: What are your top recommendations for handling stress?
Lieberman: The most important thing is to acknowledge it, to avoid pretending that everything is OK. The next step is to evaluate what can be changed and what cannot. Simply classifying the sources of stress in this way can give us a small sense of control. Work on changing the things that can be changed. Continue to revisit the things that appear as if they can’t be changed. Over time, the situation may evolve. Talk to other people about the situations you find yourself in. They may have a perspective that allows them to see things that you missed.
Once you’ve taken control of the situation and reduced the stress as much as you can, use strategies to cope with what remains. Different people find different strategies work best. Many people find exercise is highly effective. Meditation is becoming more popular and, like exercise, has benefits that go beyond stress reduction. Doing something creative with your hands usually helps. It may be cooking, gardening, woodworking, knitting, drawing, or anything else. Try to balance the cognitive labor needed to cope with stress with physical activities. Reading fiction (but not nonfiction) has some of the same benefits as meditation. If you’re social, getting together with loved ones can be the most helpful thing of all.
Q: Are there resources / apps that cater to handling or managing stress?
Lieberman: My favorite is Headspace, which is a meditation app. Calm is another app that’s very popular.