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Post-pandemic stress disorder – four ways to help

13/05/2021

For many people, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a time of significant stress, trauma and flux, and it may take months or even years to return to normality. For those who have lost a loved one to Covid-19, their lives may never be the same. In our latest blog, Dr Joanne Stuart, Clinical Psychologist, considers the mental health impact on people as we consider ‘the new normal’, and ways to help ease anxiety.

In recent months there has been an increase in the number of articles written about ‘Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder’. Whether reactions to the pandemic have created a disorder or not remains to be seen, as disorders take years of research. As with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is likely that most mental health symptoms will return to normal over the course of around one year and it is best to not worry too much and see how things go.

For other people however, the impact of the pandemic will be more enduring, and if they are struggling, I would recommend they speak to their GP about help that is on offer, both through the NHS or privately.

From an evolutionary point of view, our anxiety system or fear network has developed and endured because it has helped us survive. Ideally, it helps us to face a threat and returns back to normal when that threat has passed. One thing that has happened during the pandemic is lots of small traumas or on-going stressful events. One way of looking at this is if we think of living in a warzone. Daily stressors or threats cause our brain to shift on to ‘high alert’ and it can take years of calm for our brain to realise that the danger has passed.

If you find that your anxiety system seems to be triggering or you feel you are on ‘high alert’ every day, and this is not improving, then there are many ways to help.

Here are a few suggestions:

Put a plan in place to rebuild your life

When coming out of a traumatic situation, it can seem that rebuilding our lives is like climbing a mountain. If we look up at the mountain (or look at what we have to achieve) then we feel overwhelmed. What we can do instead is put a plan in place about some ideas of how to return our lives to how they were and just take one step at a time. Do not think about how far you need to go – just focus on that next step.

A distraction from the ‘thinking element of stress’

The pandemic may have caused a state of feeling we are on ‘high alert’ all of the time. Intense levels of stress and anxiety does not help anyone. It is important for us to help our brains understand whether danger is real – in other words are we about to be attacked? Or is the danger just something that our mind is making up? Your brain may be telling you to focus on all of the things that could potentially go wrong.

If the danger is not immediate, in other words, if you are not about to be attacked, try to change your focus of attention. You can do this by playing a game, doing a crossword, watching something, talking to someone – anything that takes your mind away from thinking about what could go wrong. Many people think that being aware of everything that could potentially go wrong helps them to be prepared. This is actually not the case because we can never know what difficulties we may face in the future or how we will deal with them at the time.

Activities to minimise the physical element of stress

The physical element of stress and anxiety is generally experienced as tension, shallow breathing, a raised heartbeat, etc. There are many ways to reduce the physical elements of stress and anxiety. You could:

  • Set a reminder on your phone to come on every hour
  • Check your body for signs of stress and try to do some breathing exercises or relaxation. Meditation is another way to reduce physical tension.
  • Exercise is an important de-stressor – you need to physically stress your body for happy hormones to be released and these happy hormones have a direct impact on reducing the stress hormones.
  • Having a hot bath or a freezing cold shower – just for 30 seconds – has been shown to relax our body.

Finding a balance

Life is about finding a balance between work, rest, exercise and play. When we are getting over a difficult time, it is really important to prioritise things that make us feel better. There are things that we have to do – we need to work to provide for ourselves and our family; we need to look after our children and pets (if we have them), we need to eat and drink water and we need to sleep. Apart from that, everything else is something that we feel we need to do but actually we do not. When trying to reduce stress and anxiety, we must prioritise the things that make us feel less stress.

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