Corona and beyond: What we can learn about stress from COVID-19 pandemic

It behooves us to learn how to strengthen our emotional health in preparation for the inevitable next time we face challenges to our emotional health.

THERE’S STRESS in not knowing what to expect (photo credit: TNS)
THERE’S STRESS in not knowing what to expect
(photo credit: TNS)
With the introduction of vaccines for COVID-19, it seems hopeful that the world will no longer have to be concerned about the virus. It’s a pretty simple equation: Take a disease, add a vaccine, and the disease goes away. And, we hope, this equation will hold true for our current collective experience. Once enough people have the vaccine, no more quarantine, no more masks, no more getting upset at Knesset members for flaunting the rules while we sit at our Seders alone.
But, an important component of coronavirus supersedes the virus itself: emotional health. Throughout the coronavirus, there has been myriads of articles making people aware of the real concerns that exist for all of us regarding the intersection of the virus’s impact and our emotional (or mental) well-being. All of those incredibly important articles outlined the increases in domestic violence, suicide, depression and anxiety that have taken place over the course of the pandemic. There were also articles about the struggles of singles who were trying to find a mate, people who lost jobs, and how to navigate the Seder alone and, of course, the fear and mourning that comes with the recognition of our mortality in the face of the virus.
It behooves us to learn how to strengthen our emotional health in preparation for the inevitable next time we face challenges to our emotional health.
While there are many definitions as to what defines being emotionally healthy depending on which theorist you ask, they likely all have to do with how we manage stress. Stress, and our responses to it, influence so many things in our lives, from our relationships to productivity at work to how we engage our children to how we spend our free time.
Stress is also the trigger for emotional health problems. As Rivkah Weiss, director of the clinical program at Kav L’Noar, points out, emotional distress is ultimately the manifestation of people trying to deal with stress in one way or another. In other words, many of the behaviors that are qualified as emotional or mental health crises have to do with people handling stress.
Take addictions. Many alarms have been sounded about the crisis of addiction in our community, as they should be. But ending addiction begins with looking at why someone engages in risky or addictive behaviors in the first place. Regardless of their upbringing, internal predispositions or life experiences, addicts seek out substances and risky behaviors because they are supposed to relieve their stress in some way, shape or form. The same is true for all of the phenomena we have read about during the pandemic, including increased domestic violence, suicide attempts and increases in anxiety and depression. These are all responses to stress.
But it’s not only addictions and it’s not only about crisis. We all respond to the stress in our lives in different ways. And as we said, how we deal with stress affects us and those around us. However, there are always times where we could use support. Whether that means venting to a friend, asking a coworker to help out with a stressful workload, seeking support from a teacher, rabbi or family member, or seeing a therapist. Although fundamentally different, these are all similar to the addict who needs a fix or an anxious person who stays home to avoid social situations finding something that helps them feel better in some way, shape or form. We all deal with stress, it just looks different in each individual, for better or worse.
IF WE’RE overwhelmed with the stress we’re experiencing without finding an effective way to deal with it or someone to support us, that’s a bad day. And, relevantly, our response to stress varies with context. A baby or toddler will generally be able to handle more stressful situations with their parents present than when they can alone. Parents can manage their children better in the absence of other stressful situations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the stressors in our lives were compounded to create a particularly challenging environment along with limited ways to deal with it. The crisis of the coronavirus precipitated an inordinate amount of stress for everyone.
So what can be done? In the aftermath of the coronavirus, what is there to do that will help heal those who have struggled and, importantly, what can we do to ensure that there is support for the inevitable future stress-inducing crises, whether they be global, communal or individual?
The tricky thing is that stress cannot be healed. Nor would we want it to go away. Stress drives us to succeed and accomplish, as long as we are able to handle it. The question is not how to rid ourselves of stress or prevent it. We want to work with it. That’s why the optimal response to stress is resilience. Resilience is the ability to face down stress, bounce back from any setbacks caused by it (or causing it), and learn from them in order to move forward. This can only happen if we are not overwhelmed by stressful situations. Imagine it as the difference between being wiped out by a wave as opposed to riding it.
As individuals, however, we are influenced by those around us. It is not enough to only become resilient ourselves. We have families, where one person’s stress impacts that of everyone else’s. And our families are a part of communities where one family’s stress impacts another’s experience. Think of all of the parents who don’t want their children associated with so-and-so’s child because of their behavior.
When we as a community become more resilient and adept at providing quality support to one another, individuals will, in turn, become more resilient. And when individuals become more resilient, so will the systems of which they are a part, through expanding the surface area of people who can and want to be helpful. It’s a two-way street. When we create a better-equipped, more-resilient system, that system will, in turn, support us the next time we inevitably stumble.
There are so many wonderful people and organizations working to create positive change in the community. And we are all a part of a larger machine, the Jewish community, which has thrived for thousands of years by taking care of its own, as a community. During the pandemic, there have been many who suffered unnecessarily because they did not know there was someone there to help them, or they were simply unaware their stress was something that could be alleviated through support, professional or otherwise. Let’s remember our historic roots. We are a supportive community that seeks to foster resilience through showing that we are there for one another. This way, we will be even more prepared for whatever challenges we might face in the future, together.
The writer is an MSW, a former fellow at the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the director of organizational advancement at Kav L’Noar.