Let’s face it.
2020 hasn’t been a great year for anyone. Covid-19 has had a powerful impact around the globe.
We’ve had to adapt to so many changes in day-to-day living: isolation, separation from loved ones, limitations on leisure activities, and constant concern about virus exposure.
The result: unusually high, prolonged levels of stress.
The number of people experiencing stress-related mental health issues has grown exponentially.
On World Mental Health Day last month, the International Committee of the Red Cross released a study indicating that over half the people taking their survey in seven different countries felt the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.
The likelihood that these symptoms will persist and become more pronounced if left untreated increases with age. Seniors – often living alone and with limited or no social contact – are extremely vulnerable to the negative impacts of stress. It’s important that seniors experiencing stress seek support from professional healthcare providers, who can offer a sympathetic ear and help develop coping techniques that can enhance their quality of life.
Click here to learn more about how seniors can get support from mental health care professionals.
So just how does stress affect mental health, and what signs should we look for in order to take preventive action?
How does Stress Change the Brain?
Many different scenarios – ranging from work to illness to accidents – can create stress. These are unpredictable situations that put the body on alert and create the “fight-or-flight” response. It can actually enhance our ability to face challenges.
But chronic, continuous stress has a very different effect.
Research has shown that chronic stress can in fact change the brain’s structure, especially in those areas that control memory and learning. It affects both the nerve cells (the brain’s “grey matter”) and their connecting material (white matter). It’s believed that these changes can make individuals more prone to the development of mental illness.
This means that ongoing stress can produce long-term changes in the structure of the brain – which can in turn interfere with its cognitive abilities. Stress has a direct effect on brain neurons – the cells that control learning, emotion, and memory – and their ability to form new brain cells.
In other words, stress can have a lasting impact on your mental health and well-being. If not treated, it can lead to losses in memory, attention span, and sleep patterns. It can also negatively affect the way we deal with our emotions. This, in turn, can make it even more difficult when trying to cope with stressful situations.
What are the Key Signs of Stress?
The kind of stress many people are currently experiencing goes far beyond the challenges of a difficult day of work. The stresses of 2020 have been intense and continuous. Helplines and health care practitioners are reporting a marked uptick in the numbers of distressed people they’re hearing from.
What are the symptoms which indicate stress levels may be having an impact on mental health?
Two Major Symptoms of Stress: Depression and Anxiety
These can occur simultaneously. In fact, it’s estimated half of all people who experience depression or anxiety also have the other condition. The symptoms are often similar.
They include irritability, a shortening of the temper, and rapid shifts in mood. You may experience an inability to make decisions – or you may find yourself acting on impulse without considering the consequences or risks.
Everyone feels down or sad at some point, but it can be distressing to feel that way for a long period of time. Symptoms of depression include:
- the decrease in energy, feeling chronically fatigued or sluggish
- difficulty when trying to concentrate, make decisions or remember
- aches, pains, digestive problems that seem to have no cause
- noticeable changes in weight or appetite
- insomnia, difficulty staying asleep, waking up too early, excessive sleeping
- decreased interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
- chronic sense of sadness
- feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- regularly feeling angry, irritable, or restless
- feelings of guilt, lack of a sense of worth
- sense of helplessness, loss of control
- impulsive behavior
- thoughts of suicide
Anxiety is also another psychological state experienced by many people. Think about pre-wedding jitters, or having to make a speech.
But if it’s an ongoing state, it can seriously affect your energy levels and sense of well-being – and eventually result in disordered thinking and irrational fears that complicate your day-to-day life.
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:
- frequent feelings of fatigue, lack of energy
- difficulty when trying to concentrate or remember
- rapid mood shifts
- difficulty sleeping, including delayed and shallow sleep
- feeling restless, irritable, or edgy
- uncontrollable worries or fears
- a sense of dread or panic
Stress is known to have a powerful impact on mental health. Chronic stress can have long-term effects on brain structure.
If you’re experiencing stress, you’re not alone This year has been particularly stressful as a result of Covid-19.
Self-care – balanced diet, adequate sleep, exercise, getting counseling if needed, and maintaining social contacts (even remotely) – will go a long way towards helping you minimize the impact of stress on your mental well-being.