The Physical & Mental Toll of Worry in a Time Such as This
Updated: Apr 23
"Cultivating a measure of intelligent detachment in your life can be a valuable instrument of peace.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
A pandemic of stress, worry, anxiety
No one alive has experienced anything like this global pandemic and shutdown, the effects of which will no doubt be deep, widespread and long-lasting.
Even pre-pandemic, Americans were more stressed out, worried and anxious than ever.
From financial and housing worries to career and relationship stress, a 2019 poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) indicated that our collective anxiety was already on the rise. This virus certainly isn’t helping.
Anxiety is a disorder in reaction to our stress that has emotional, physical and mental components.
This last component includes worry: the thoughts associated with our stress and fears, that can and do run amok. A new APA poll adds COVID worries to our already-packed list of stressors.
As we hunker down to distance ourselves, half of America (48%) are worried about becoming infected with coronavirus. Forty (40%) percent of us worry about becoming seriously sick or dying from the virus; and a majority of Americans (62%) worry about our loved ones contracting the virus.
Beyond the spread itself, about half of us also fear shortages of food, medicine or supplies and almost one-third worry about lack of potentially-necessary tests and healthcare.
Most Americans are worried about the pandemic’s impact on their financial situation and 68% of Americans have concern about the long-term impact all of this will have on our economy.
There is an upside to a little bit of worrying - especially when our life or the life of a loved one is on the line. Normal levels of anxiety actually motivate us to work harder, problem-solve and help us prepare for the future. In the case of coronavirus, worry may cause us to be extra diligent, when it’s most important.
The problem is worry doesn’t much lend itself to moderation.
Most worry is not rational
Actual facts, if you can find them, help immensely. There’s already enough to worry about without adding random conspiracy theories or one or the other sides’ political agenda.
Way back before coronavirus, you know, a couple of months ago, the general consensus was that about 85% - 90% of what we worry about never actually happens. Let’s just go ahead and assume that whatever the majority of us are worried about right now is real and true and worth the fret.
That doesn’t mean it helps.
Indeed, all that worry and excessive stress actually clouds decision-making, blocking new ideas or solutions or a new perspective that can help us. In fact, studies have linked the stress hormone to a drop in mental function/IQ and brain mass, and memory loss.
Living for long stretches in a heightened state of anxiety, we do harm to our mental health and our physical well-being. If there was ever a time to focus on our own health, it’s now.
The physical toll of stress and worry
While our brain is working us up into a tither mentally and emotionally, there is also a real physical toll happening as well: anxiety and worry lead to high blood pressure and can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Stress leads to weakened immune systems, stomach ulcers, backaches, panic attacks, heart palpitations, skin conditions and problems with the bowels. Basically, anxiety can take down every part of your body.
Research shows that living with long-term stress even shortens our life expectancy.
Uncertainty and anxiety
Little right now is certain and there is much outside of our control.
Uncertainty has been found to play a key role in anxiety. Our level of worry is determined in great part to how we are able to live and accept the uncertainties of life. The more fearful we are, the more anxiety we have.
Whatever lies ahead, it is actually possible to come out mentally and psychologically stronger after this. But that won’t just happen on its own. To help dial down the anxiety, let’s focus on what we have control over.
Step-by-step we can focus on just the next single thing at a time. We can plan and prepare and possibly reduce the chances of negative events.
After we do what we can, it helps to try to release control and emotional investment in the outcome. It will be or it won’t be. Or maybe it will be wearing a different hat and we won’t recognize it.
To not drive ourselves crazy, we then have to let it go. They call it: “intelligent detachment”. Easy for they to say.
Sometimes though – like exactly like a time like this - you may have to deal with bad events and you won’t be able to emotionally detach no matter what. If you can’t stop the worry and stress, it helps to at least contain it; limit its power over your life.
Call it: That’s enough stress and worry for today.
Don’t let it take over your life. We empower worry by feeding it. Don’t give all your anxiety a voice - or an audience. Recall the ancient proverb: Misery loves company, especially online.
Worried thoughts are within our control to turn off. The mind is reactive. It will follow us where we lead it. We can replace those thoughts with habits that serve us instead.
No matter what there is to worry and stress about – and there may be a lot - that’s not all of your life. There’s still plenty of good things going on.
An immediate elixir for what ails us, gratitude brings relief from our worry and strife. Like right now, if you’re not in a hospital bed, sitting beside one or planning a loved one’s funeral, give big thanks.
10 Helpful Reminders: #2: Pandemic Rx: Gratitude