We the people are stressed out.
To be alive is to experience stress. Or, to be more dramatic: Life is suffering. But none of us could have prepared for the stress — abject, encompassing — that 2020 would bring. In January, America began the year with the baseline anxiety that the killing of an Iranian general by a U.S. drone strike might plunge us into World War III. Things generally went south from there.
Now, as COVID-19 works its way through the country, so does another ailment. Risk factors include sudden changes in routine, social isolation, fear of getting sick or making others sick, and financial insecurity. Symptoms range from nausea to hives. To get a better picture of how the pandemic has shifted the American psyche, I spoke with therapists across the country — and every provider I asked said mental health conditions like chronic stress, anxiety, and depression have spiked since March.
Stress isn’t always this expansive and threatening. But when you factor in a global health crisis that adds emotional and physical stress and subtracts many coping mechanisms, it can manifest in new, seemingly unconquerable ways. “If you’ve had a hard day, you can’t just go out for a run or head to a friend’s house,” says Austin-based therapist Grace Dowd. “These things might not be safe.”
Losing your hobby or a familiar routine is enough to provoke grief, but probably nothing is as profound as the loss of connection with other people, of all the nuance and support of in-person interaction. Now, deciding whether to see a friend feels a lot like being forced to make a choice between your physical and mental health.
“There are often no right answers, but the consequences [of every decision] feel so high,” says Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area. “Everything feels high stakes.”
There’s a cruel feedback loop to chronic stress: Anxiety can trigger physical symptoms, like nausea or a sore throat, which can create new anxieties about catching the virus and/or contributing to a pandemic. Like body, like mind: All of this persistent, mounting stress in our everyday lives can exacerbate existing mental health conditions, or trigger new ones.
Jessica Harris, a therapist based in Maryland, says she’s seeing more cases of anxiety and depression among her clientele; plus, people who have been sick themselves or lost a loved one to COVID-19 are showing signs of trauma. According to Mattu, chronic stress is also known to impact physical health, even compromising the immune system. And the strain is worse for Black Americans during yet another public referendum on police violence and systemic racism.