2020 has certainly been a long and arduous year. While it would be exciting to reunite with friends and family, the United States currently faces the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there has been a considerable rise in cases on a global scale. As a result, the CDC has recommended that people celebrate winter holidays with only members of your own household in order to mitigate further spread of COVID-19. People with certain invisible illnesses, including cancer, COPD, and diabetes, also face higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. This not only affects the people with underlying medical conditions, but also those that live or work with them, as it is suggested that this population avoid in-person gatherings altogether. Ultimately, we must make choices that are best for our health and the health of our loved ones.
The pandemic is a unique stressor in itself. It has weighed heavily on our minds for most, if not all of this year. The holiday season poses an additional layer of stress, as we must decide what is best for our personal circumstances. Yet, in viewing this time from a glass-half-full standpoint, I find that the typical whirlwind of the holidays is eliminated in favor of a laid-back season.
Traveling with a chronic illness is no easy feat. Packing your life into a suitcase for a week is difficult, especially for those with chronic illnesses that have to consider medication restraints. Food allergies require planning ahead for holiday parties, and chemical sensitivities to cleaning supplies and fragrances pose another concern in the setting of large-gatherings.
Perhaps we can utilize this as an opportunity to destress. Prior to the pandemic, chronic stress was a widespread issue, and I can only imagine that these levels have risen. According to the American Institute of Stress:
33% of people feel they are living with extreme stress
48% of people report having a difficult time sleeping due to stress
73% of people regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress
77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress
Interestingly, stress can be beneficial to your health in the short-term by helping you cope with potentially serious situations. he body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase heart rate and breathing rate, as well as create tension in the muscles. However, when someone experiences chronic stress, the physiological response persists and stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival. It affects the entire body and is linked to other health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety.
We can examine the ways in which stress effects individual organ systems:
Central Nervous System (involving the brain and spinal cord)
The hypothalamus is a key structure in the brain that is involved in the sleep-wake cycle. It is activated during the stress response and through a cascade of molecular signals, causes the release of hormones that stimulate attention and arousal. This causes issues with sleep, most commonly insomnia, as a result of constant stress because the hypothalamus is continually activated. Additionally, stress can be a trigger for tension headaches and migraine in some people.
Stress initially stimulates the immune system, but over time, stress hormones weaken the immune system and reduce the body's response to pathogens. Thus, people under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses, as well as other infections. This is especially important to recognize in the midst of the pandemic because reducing stress could help curtail the risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Stress can also increase the time it takes to recover from illness or injury in addition to causing chronic inflammation throughout the body.
People facing chronic stress are more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux due to an increase in stomach acid production. While stress alone cannot cause ulcers, it can increase the risk of developing ulcers or cause existing ulcers to worsen. Furthermore, stress can affect the way in which food travels through the gastrointestinal tract, potentially leading to diarrhea or constipation.
Muscles tense up as a means of protection from injury during the stress response. If someone is constantly under stress, the muscles will not fully relax, causing headaches, back and shoulder pain, and overall body aches.
Breathing difficulties, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, can occur with stress and strong emotions. When a person is in good health, these effects are usually not dangerous, but they may significantly affect people with breathing problems, such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.
Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles so you’ll have more strength to take action. This raises blood pressure, which also increases the risk for having a stroke or heart attack. Overall, chronic stress makes the heart work harder for too long.
It is clear that stress can have widespread effects on the body, but there are many ways to manage and relieve stress. Here are some of my favorite ideas:
Exercise - lowers the body's stress hormones and releases endorphins
Spend time with friends (in person or virtually!) - releases oxytocin, a natural stress reliever
Listen to soothing music - helps lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones
Deep breathing - activates the parasympathetic nervous system which controls the relaxation response
Baking - creative expression is linked to reduced stress
Watching TV - I recently started The Crown and The Queen's Gambit on Netflix!
Hopefully you can take some time to rest and enter 2021 with a more relaxed state of mind. Wishing you all a stress-free holiday season!
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