How Ambient Stress Can Harm Your Mental Health

aAmericans Mental health is frustrating during the first year of the epidemic. More than 36% of adults in the United States have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression In August 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By January 2021, the number was above 40%.

It’s not hard to see why. A new and terrifying virus was spreading without vaccines to slow it down. Cities and states were in varying degrees of lockdown for most of 2020, with many people forgoing special events and visits with friends and family. Fear and isolation spreadAnd people had every reason to feel so nervous.

But even as the lockdown was lifted, people were vaccinated, and life resumed to more of its natural rhythms, many people continued to feel… at the American Psychological Association exploratory study Published in October 2021, 75% of people said they had recently experienced the consequences of stress, including headaches, sleep problems, fatigue, and feeling tired.

Now, more than two years after the epidemic, many people still haven’t recovered. One cause could be “ambient stress” — or “stress running in the background, below level of awareness,” says New York clinical psychologist Laurie Ferguson, director of education development at Global Healthy Living Foundationa non-profit organization that supports people with chronic diseases.

“Something is wrong, but we don’t score it all the time,” Ferguson says. “We’re always in a little off balance. We’re kind of working on a level like everything is okay and things are normal, when in reality they are not.”

in 1983 Article – Commodity Published in the magazine environment and behavior, researcher Joan Campbell described ambient stressors as those that are chronic and negative, that the individual cannot fundamentally change, usually do not cause immediate life threats (but can be harmful over time), are perceptible but often go unnoticed. In the long run, these stressors can affect ‘motivation, emotions, and attention,’ Campbell wrote. [physical] Health and behavior.

Campbell cited examples such as pollution and traffic noise, but it’s also an apt description of this phase of the pandemic. In March 2020, the pandemic was a strain on your face — at least for many people, they felt the urgency and were all consumed. After two years, most people have adapted, to some extent. Most people are vaccinated, the news is not broadcasting the latest case 24/7, and life seems closer to 2019 than it is to 2020. But, whether we realize it or not, we are Still bearing the psychological burden Two years of death, illness, turmoil and uncertainty, plus smaller disruptions like changes in our social or work life, says Ferguson.

Even ambient stress can have health consequences, Campbell noted. Humans have evolved to deal with short-term stressors, but we’re not good at it Dealing with chronic stressLaura Grafe, associate professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, explains. Chronic stress has been linked to conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep problems, mental health and cognitive disorders.

Ongoing stress can also compound the effects of other stressors. “Everything else looks worse with the chronic stress of the pandemic going on in the background,” Graf says.

However, ambient stress doesn’t have to cut all the joy out of your life. in Study 2021Graffie and her co-authors examined how pandemic stress and coping strategies affected sleep. Her team found that a person’s sleep quality is not necessarily dictated by the overall level of stress associated with the pandemic, but rather by how well they cope with that stress. This suggests that stress, in and of itself, is not necessarily the problem – it’s unmanaged stress.

When stress becomes so routine that we stop acknowledging it, we are less likely to manage it effectively. As Cambell wrote in 1983, “Adaptation is more likely to occur when the stressor is still new.” In the middle of 2022, many people are giving up the soothing hobbies like baking, yoga and knitting that they adopted in Spring 2020.

That’s why it’s important to develop sustainable coping strategies, says Nicole Nelson, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, who has also Epidemiological stress study. “No one coping strategy is inherently good or bad,” says Nelson, but it is often helpful to reframe psychological stress as less threatening. It’s hard to do with something as serious as a pandemic, but Nelson suggests trying it on a smaller scale: finding ways to appreciate the positive aspects of working from home, for example. (suggests graphy Mindfulness exercises Cognitive behavioral therapy to deal with stress.)

Giving your brain new stimuli can also help during a prolonged period of stress, Ferguson says. Even small changes, like eating something new for breakfast or taking a different route for your daily walk, can offer some health innovations. Physical activity is also A tried-and-true stress-reducing tacticshe adds.

Just noticing and naming ambient stress can go a long way, Ferguson says. “Even people who are back to normal still have this ambient stress, and they may not realize that they are a little shorter in mood, or that they are less optimistic,” she says. “It’s subtle, in many ways, hard to notice” of the stress of a global pandemic, but just as important as managing it.

More must-read stories from TIME


write to Jamie Ducharme in jamie.ducharme@time.com.