Dear Doctor,  

In your opinion has this pandemic increased stress and, if so, what can we do to help ourselves?

Asking

Dear Asking,

You want all this in one column?

First, what is stress? Some stress is positive and does not cause harm. This has been labeled as eustress. One person’s eustress is another individual’s horror. For example, it would not be my passion to sky dive. Another might be excited and look forward to the adventure.

Stress has its complex of effects. We are designed to react with brief, momentary stress. Dodging a sudden approaching car, for instance, produces a rush of Adrenalin, a stressful, but transient event. Such momentary fear and avoidance is actually useful for survival.

What if the stress lasts for days, months and even years? How does it affect us? The body reacts. The immune system is less effective. Memory and mental functioning are compromised. The brain and the cardiovascular system are two major foci for less-efficient functioning, even outright damage. The culprit is a hormone, cortisol, one to be avoided.

We live with patterns. The pandemic has altered work, family interactions, separate daily events such as school, and other activities. This is stressful, more so for some than others. One may notice it leading to depression, a pervasive sense of ennui.

What to do? One answer is “stuff.” Think outside the box. What new and different patterns can one cultivate to cause variety, new learning, novel experiences and so on?

There is another pattern, which is enormously helpful. It is the practice of mindfulness. This may involve meditation, but it definitely consists of being in the moment.

What better time to practice such skills than during the hiatus occasioned by the pandemic. Go for a walk, but, as you do, really notice what surrounds you. Be curious about the limb of a tree, a flower, even the chirp of a bird. As you do, stress will lift. 

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question, or respond to one, email him at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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