Some suggestions to deal with stress we’re all feeling
“Not liking the look of this.”
–infectious disease and global health reporter Helen Branswell in January 2020
Watching students, faculty, and staff go about their daily school lives in January 2022, engage in class, eat lunch, and participate in extracurricular activities, life can seem almost routine. And yet, it is so far from that. Everyone wears masks indoors, and many opt to keep them on outside. We hear about family members grappling with illness or losing a loved one. Every day brings news of faculty, staff, and students testing positive or being exposed to someone who has. Events that we have eagerly anticipated are cancelled and delayed. The numbers of absences seesaw up and down, and we spend a significant amount of time discussing and revising COVID protocols.
As we continue to deal with COVID and the Omicron variant, the days before the pandemic seemed much simpler. In the words of a staff member: “I just want something normal!”
It feels like our community is Charlie Brown and the pandemic keeps pulling away the football every time we try to kick it and get on with our lives. We started to find a new equilibrium when we returned to school in August, even though we wore masks. For a brief time, school began in some ways to resemble how it used to look. Students and teachers worked together in class, we watched plays in the theater, sports activities occurred on the fields and courts; we even held a dance outdoors.
Then Omicron arrived. While this variant appears to be much more transmissible but much less virulent, COVID continues to have a major impact on all of us in a variety of ways. We are now into our third year dealing with a pandemic, and what once felt like a crisis now seems chronic. This constant stress and worry has taken its toll on all of us.
While some short term stress can be beneficial and educational, over time it becomes destructive. A March 2020 article by Tracy Asamoah, MD called “How Does Chronic Stress Affect Your Health” lists some effects of chronic stress:
- Sleep problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Stomach upset
- Frequent colds or infections
- Persistent worry
This leads to potentially higher incidents of:
Obesity: Stress can lead to overeating but also cravings for “comfort foods” that are high in fat and sugar, which can raise the risk of obesity.
Immune disorders: Being under stress for long periods of time can exacerbate autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and weaken your immune system.
High blood pressure and heart conditions: Prolonged stress can elevate blood pressure and may cause inflammation in the coronary arteries, which can lead to heart attack.
Drug and alcohol misuse: Alcohol and drugs are commonly used to cope with stress and stress-related conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Eating disorders: Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are other ways people may cope with ongoing stress.
Cancer: According to the National Cancer Institute, the link between stress and cancer is more indirect and believed to be related to behaviors people engage in to deal with stress, such as smoking, overeating, and drinking alcohol.
This is not merely an academic concern. At Keystone, we see stress among our students, families, faculty, and staff. We are all fatigued. We head to the grocery only to find our favorite item is out of stock; things in general just don’t seem to work well. We feel constantly on alert and uneasy. Even with the best of intentions, emails, texts and social media can become places to argue rather than modes of communication.
On a larger societal level, medical professionals and educators are leaving for other fields. “The Great Resignation” is rippling all around us, and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
So, what do we do and how do we help our children and ourselves? Initially, we need to bear in mind the advice from airline attendants when preparing for take off. First place the mask on yourself so you can take care of others. Asamoah recommends the following:
- Exercise: Take a walk or go to the gym. Moving your body can help combat stress.
- Practice mindfulness: You can practice mindfulness formally through meditation. You can also practice mindfulness informally by simply becoming aware of how you feel physically and emotionally in the present moment.
- Spend time with others: Healthy relationships with other people can help you cope with stress. Meet a friend for coffee or take a fun class.
- Get good quality sleep: Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night is important for your physical and emotional health.
- Talk to your doctor or a therapist: Your doctor or therapist can help you incorporate strategies to manage stress more effectively in your daily life.
These are small steps, but they can help us gain a little room to approach situations with a bit more understanding and empathy. Maintaining our physical health and relationships may provide the perspective we require when grappling with a complicated problem. In turn, we can then teach our children how to handle stress in their lives. Perhaps the tips above will serve our children just as well as they help us adults.
The current public health projections show the Omicron wave lasting another month or so, before it winds down. We’re in for several more weeks of stress and uncertainty. At Keystone, please know that our faculty, staff and administrators are continuing to educate children while keeping our community safe. At times, people may disagree on how best to accomplish something, and that’s ok. What has not changed, and what will never change, is our dedication to our students.
I’m going to close with a pair of quotes for us all to keep in mind:
From Keystone’s Middle School: Stay safe, stay educated, stay positive
From Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General: “Be safe, be smart, and be kind.”