Stressful Times: Understanding Stress and Its Symptoms

April Is Stress Awareness Month

With the onset of COVID-19 and the challenges caused by the pandemic, more and more people may be encountering higher levels and different types of stress than they normally experience.  In this three-part series, University of Maryland Global Campus psychology program faculty members discuss the effects of stress, strategies for coping with stress and tips for staying socially connected while physically distant from family, friends and coworkers.

Look outward to combat the adverse effects that dwelling on a stressful situation can bring. That’s one strategy recommended by Jennifer Thompson, collegiate faculty and psychology program director at University of Maryland Global Campus, for coping with stress during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Spend time with your family, even if it is virtual. Spend time in nature. Find ways to help others and change your focus from internal to external. The benefits are immeasurable,” she said.

Everyone undergoes stress in their daily lives. In fact, in small doses stress can motivate individuals to reach their daily goals and tackle challenges. But when stress becomes “chronic,”  it can lead to many negative physical and psychological effects.  

“It is important to be aware of those adverse effects,” Thompson said. “But it is similarly important not to dwell on a stressful situation,” she added.

Stress Triggers and Types

A situation that causes tension—a stressor—is “a life event that disrupts or threatens to disrupt our everyday lives,” said Michelle Green, UMGC adjunct professor of psychology. A stress response is a person’s emotional and behavioral reaction to a stressor and, she added, it is proportional to one’s capacity to face and manage the stressors in his or her life.

“If a person’s ability to cope is sufficient they will experience less stress,” Green said. “If the stressor is too significant or chronic and taxes the person’s ability to cope, they will experience more stress.”

More than that, it’s the different—and especially new—types of stressors that individuals and families may face while continuing to practice social distancing or sheltering in place that will help determine whether their experience of stress will be short-term or have long-term negative effect.

Acute stress is resolved in a relatively brief period and has a lesser impact on people’s lives, Green said. An example might be the stress one feels when running late for an appointment.

But, she added, chronic stress, caused by enduring stressors such as marital discord or divorce, financial strain, chronic illness, the effects of a natural disaster, or a toxic home or work environment, have a lasting impact with a long-term presence.

“The more long-term, unpredictable, and threatening a situation is, the more impact it has on us,” Green said. “COVID-19 is a chronic, unpredictable, and potentially life-threatening virus, which puts it into the most challenging type of stressor.”

Fellow UMGC psychology adjunct professor Lyn Thaxton said that amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are facing stress related to isolation or too much contact with loved ones who are underfoot. And new fears  linked to job loss or financial hardship, health concerns—and COVID-19 related fear of the unknown—are prevalent,  she added.

Family stress, especially with schoolchildren at home, will definitely increase during the COVID-19 crisis, agreed Joe Costa, a psychology adjunct who teaches UMGC’s “Psychology of Stress” course. “If a sick relative, such as an aging parent, is at home, so-called caregiver stress may increase. And marital stress issues that already existed can increase.”

Recognizing Stress Symptoms

Unlike the “fight-or-flight” reaction to a first encounter with a stressor, the situation with the novel coronavirus is unique, according to Green. With fight-or-flight, symptoms such as rapid breathing and increased blood flow and heart rate abate when the stressful situation ends and our bodies return to a more relaxed state.

 “[COVID-19]  is unpredictable and threatening to one’s health. When a stressor is long-lasting or chronic, our bodies don’t have the chance to relax or recover enough,”  Green said.

Physical symptoms to watch for include muscle tension, headaches, upset stomach, insomnia or oversleeping, and over- or under-eating, said Thaxton. High blood pressure and decreased energy can also be physical signs of stress, Green said.

Chronic stress, which is the issue with the COVID-19 crisis, can have a psychological impact as well, according to Green, who added that most people will experience some fleeting moments of increased fear, worry, sadness, anger, and frustration.

 In many ways, we are grieving our normal way of life as we adjust to this ‘new normal,’” she said.

But take special note when fleeting symptoms become persistent. Rumination, obsessive thinking, anxiety and depression are all signs that stress is having a psychological impact, Thaxton advised.

Recognizing the signs of depression or anxiety in yourself or a loved one is important in understanding when to seek help, whether professionally or through your personal support system.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety include a combination of several of the following:

  • Sadness or irritability most of the day, most days of the week
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Frequent sleep disturbance (sleeping too much or too little)
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Significant fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Loss of interest or motivation; or suicidal thoughts

“If negative feelings are chronic and inescapable, it’s important to seek help, though not necessarily from professionals. Sympathetic friends who are good listeners can be invaluable,” Thaxton said.

 “Signs of concern that may indicate a need to seek professional help are more intense symptoms that are present most of the time and lead to distress or dysfunction [or both] across time, including symptoms of depression or anxiety disorders,” Green said.

More About This Series

These are challenging times and stress levels for many are increasing. Part two  will explore tips for staying connected with those you’re separated from while continuing to practice social distancing.

About Stress Awareness Month

From the official website: Sponsored by The Health Resource Network (HRN), a non-profit health education organization, Stress Awareness Month is a national, cooperative effort to inform people about the dangers of stress, successful coping strategies, and harmful misconceptions about stress that are prevalent in our society. Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992.