As coronavirus quarantine restrictions begin to lift, the feeling of relief and excitement in getting back to day-to-day life is mixed with worry and stress over the unknown.

It is important to realize that these feelings of stress can last long after a traumatic event and that such experiences impact our health in a big way. 

Luana Marques, PhD, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, Director of Community Psychiatry PRIDE and Mass General Research Scholar 2020-2025, talks about the effects of chronic stress and what can be done to ease its impact.

Acute vs. Chronic Stress

Whether it is the rush to meet a deadline or the unexpected passing of someone you know, there are many physical, mental and emotional factors in your daily life that can make you feel stressed.

These moments, known as acute stressors, are quick to occur and are usually short lived. Signs of acute stress may include:

  • Pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain or nausea
  • Sweating

Chronic stress occurs when the body is repeatedly exposed to stressful events and is in a constant state of alertness.

“When we experience a stressor, we engage our fight or flight mechanism. When our fight or flight is engaged, we release hormones that make physiological changes in our body. This is helpful when we are in immediate danger and need to fight for our lives or escape for survival,” says Dr. Marques. But in the case of chronic stress, the fight or flight response can hinder us.

The Impact of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress often occurs when you lack control over situations and face uncertainty. It affects the body on every level, and symptoms include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Insomnia
  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms such as flashbacks or nightmares

Physical health is impacted by stressors as much as mental health.

“Chronic stress can affect how the immune system functions,” says Dr. Marques. “It is linked to increases in metabolic disease such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and even certain types of cancer.” 

Will the Coronavirus Lead to Chronic Stress?

As quarantine restrictions are lifted and you progress from an acute stress period to one of chronic stress, you may experience symptoms such as low mood and irritability, followed by other symptoms such as feeling numb, difficulty sleeping and negative thoughts.

“An analysis of many previous studies has emphasized the long-term psychological effects of disease pandemics and quarantine, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Dr. Marques. “These studies have reported these effects lasting from months up to years after the initial event. In a study of youth during post-Hurricane Katrina, data indicated that many of the subjects could have benefited from PTSD treatment up to 2.5 years after the initial event. These studies can help us understand the potential impact of the current pandemic we are experiencing.”

Given how chronic stress can negatively impact both our mental and physical health, it is important to take steps to limit its impact and boost your resilience to stress.

Taking Charge in the Midst of Uncertainty

“The best way to endure the continued uncertainty you are experiencing is to make sure you are taking care of yourself,” says Dr. Marques.

“We cannot begin to manage our mental health when our tanks are empty. I encourage everyone to 'charge up' when you need to. This means getting enough healthy food to eat and eating at regular intervals, exercising at least 30 minutes a day and getting seven to eight hours of sleep. All of these behaviors are backed by research to support our cognitive, mental and physical health. This will ultimately help us build resilience during a time when we do not know what to expect.”

Dr. Marques also recommends “cooling the brain” to help calm anxiety and build resiliency. This involves:

  • Practicing mindfulness, a strategy that gently brings our attention to the present moment when we find our thoughts in a tailspin
  • Limiting excessive media exposure
  • Accepting that there are things that we cannot control and taking steps to adjust to a new norm

It is also important to make sure to surround yourself with a support system of friends, family and loved ones, and reach out to a health care professional if you’re having trouble managing stress and anxiety.

Additional Resources

The Department of Psychiatry has put together a curated set of resources to help patients and providers work through the stress of COVID-19. View the department's General Mental Health and Coping guide.