DENVER — Human beings hate uncertainty, says Dr. Jody Thomas, a psychologist in Denver and adjunct faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The coronavirus pandemic has made almost everything seem uncertain, and therefore, it has caused stress, short tempers, sadness and tension.
Thomas joined Next with Kyle Clark to discuss the science behind that and what we can do to combat those effects.
Answers may have been shortened for length or clarity. You can see the full interview here.
What have you been noticing about people’s reaction over the last couple of months when it comes to COVID?
I think what we’re noticing a lot, and not surprisingly, because it is such a universal experience, is just – people are struggling. They’re struggling emotionally, and the mental health aspects of this are huge and not insignificant at all. We’ve been seeing kind of this crisis mode that happened in the first few months, and now there’s kind of this movement into the long-term portion. We’re realizing this isn’t just going to be a couple of weeks. We can’t just keep on going in survival mode. Our bodies and mental health aren’t really designed to do that.
People are saying they feel so much more tired than I usually do, or processing things is harder for me right now. Why is that?
What is happening because of COVID – we were not designed for as human beings. When we think about the exhaustion factor, it makes a lot of sense. When we think about the fact that we’re decreasing the things that help us and increasing that don’t. Our limbic system and our neurological system – our fight or flight response, our stress response – they are activated all the time now. We feel that on a day-to-day basis, we feel when we’re sitting there thinking, how am I going to do work, how am I going to do this? We’re thinking that when we’re engaging with a lot of media. We can’t really go to the grocery store right now – everything becomes an exercise in risk mitigation, so we have this increased need for hypervigilance. It truly does take a toll on our bodies and our brains. It’s physiologically and psychologically exhausting.
When you say “fight or flight” is at this elevated level long-term, what does that actually mean chemically for your body? What’s happening within your body?
We’re seeing things like – our heart rates increase, our blood pressure increases, our muscle tension is higher. When we take a moment to reflect, and you realize my shoulders are higher, I am breathing a little bit shallow – those things occur very naturally. Very handy if you’re being chased by a lion. Not handy if this is happening every moment of every day.
We’re having cortisol and these stress hormones flood through our bodies on a really regular basis, and that’s when we see things like decreased immune functioning, increased pain response. That’s why we’re seeing people with chronic pain actually experience more symptoms.
We’re also not able to do the things that help us. We're not able to be out in the world and feel really connected, the light banter we're having with other people in the store, the coworker that we can give a hug to or shake a hand -- even our masks, which are great and necessary, but they're still a cut-off. I don't know the expression of the person sitting next to me.
Some of us have noticed people tend to be a little bit snappier, maybe a little bit shorter. People seem to be angrier...
There's a number of things that are involved in that. One, we're just straight out of resources. Where's, what I sometimes refer to as, is our emotional piggy bank? Where are we operating from? Our emotional piggy banks are in so much demand right now that they really are tapped out. A snarky comment that might have been whatever at another time feels really personal.
We also have the grief aspect of it. We are all really experiencing a lot of grief right now, which sometimes gets a lot of looks when I say that, but grief isn't about death. Grief is about loss, and we are all experiencing these tons of losses right now. That's where we see a lot of that anger that we're talking about.
It's really easy to go to anger.
What can you do to alleviate some of this?
A lot of the basics are really important, like basic self-care. "It might be nice to take a walk" has become "it's really important to take the walk." When we're doing that, we are really kind of hacking that limbic system and that response. We need different stimulation to help brings us from that tension and allowing that system to stop.
The best thing we can do is stopping and taking five deep breaths. It sounds simple. I get the biggest eye rolls when I talk to people about that, but I'm like -- just give it a shot. There's a reason they built in that weird two-minute breathing thing on your Apple watch or your FitBit. There is science behind it.
Eating, sleeping -- those things have become so essential. There's never been a time when it's more apparent of the need for those real basics.
The other really big thing to do, that we know has some fascinating science behind it, is being able to name our emotion, and name our emotion specifically. "I feel bad" gives us no path out. But if we're saying, "I'm feeling overwhelmed," OK. Now we're saying, I need to take some tasks off my plate. "I'm feeling exhausted." OK, then we need to work on taking a nap, going to bed earlier, saying work's going to have to wait 'til tomorrow. "I'm feeling disconnected." OK, this is the time when I need 15 minutes to go call my friend and feel connected to another human.
It helps us chart a path forward.
In the full interview, Thomas explains the toll of online meetings and the hardship kids might be feeling. You can watch the interview here.
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