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Understanding Behavior: From Neurons to Societies

Researcher Provides Helpful Guide to Coping with Stressful Times, Part I

June 3, 2020
By Professor Matthew Zawadzki, UC Merced
It can be helpful to take breaks and focus on being quiet and calm.

Professor Matthew Zawadzki is with the Department of Psychological Sciences in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. His research examines social psychological processes as applied to health. This is the first of a two-part discussion.

These are unusual times. In the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans, cities across the country are gripped by protests that have been hijacked by rioters and looters, becoming violent in some cases. Many people are still working remotely or unable to work; campuses are closed and students of all ages are taking part in online or home schooling; people are separated from friends and other family; and people are unable to do many of their usual activities. Let’s talk about the stress of the current situation.

1. What are some of the consequences of stress and warnings that people should pay attention to?

When we think about stress, we should remember it is a dynamic process that unfolds over time. Some consequences are quick and others take longer to develop. Even if we think we are handling something in a moment, the stress we are experiencing can accumulate over time and suddenly affect us all at once. In terms of specific consequences, in the short-term, we feel more negative and anxious, and we become prone to more negative thinking such as worrying about the future and being less optimistic. For most of us, our behaviors become just a little unhealthier: We watch that extra episode on Netflix, eat that extra cookie, have that extra glass of wine or skip that workout we planned to do. As this stress persists for a longer period, we may start to feel more rundown as our body gets exhausted with trying to cope with stress and we may experience more sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression.

2. What are some of the best ways people can avoid or reduce those effects?

Stress is an ongoing process. It is important not to think there is one big action we can do that will take care of it for the long term. Instead, just as with our relationships with others, our relationship with stress needs constant maintenance. This is good and bad news. The good news is that a lot of times small steps are all that is needed to help: Take pauses in your day to do a hobby or other pleasurable leisure activity you enjoy, walk around to get some exercise and clear your head, connect with others in a positive way even for a few minutes. The bad news is that if we do not take care of small, daily stress, it builds. And it builds in our minds the most, letting us carry that stress from work to home and from one part of life to another.

3. How can people support friends and family without burning themselves out?

One of the big things is to try to treat this as a new normal. In times of crisis, we are willing to go all out and make large sacrifices knowing that the crisis will pass and we can recharge and reset however it makes sense. COVID-19 feels like this kind of crisis. But this way of coping only works if we know when that ending point might be, or if we know that we will have extra friends we can lean on or resources we can use in the long term. With COVID-19, we are facing chronic stress with the potential to last weeks and months. Even more, some people are clearly in situations where the impacts of COVID-19 are harder — for example those who’ve already lost a job or can’t pay for typical expenses. So, while the current events are exceptional, we have to think about them as a new standard of living until we can phase out of sheltering in place, and phase into the economy opening.

This is all a long preamble to say that it could be very easy to burn ourselves out, in which case, we are not able to help anyone. We need to balance between providing help and support for others while also taking care of ourselves. This is going to be hard because many of us want to do everything we can to help the people we love who are struggling. As with managing our personal stress, small consistent steps to support others will help them maintain their own sense of health and well-being. So long as these small steps are within reason, we are likely to be able to continue to support others for the long-term, too. Some examples:

  • Be realistic about what you can do; set up consistent calls with people who you know might be isolated.
  • Reach out to small businesses and those who are self-employed and see if you can buy a gift card for their services in the future. If you can afford it, reach out next month, too.
  • Donate to a local food bank if you have the resources or help someone in need find information on how to access those services.

Overall, we can help our friends, family and greater social circles make their lives more positive and predictable with these small steps.

4. How about college students? Some are home with their families, some are not. Which group is likely to be more stressed and why?

As with most of these issues, it depends. For some families, this is a chance to connect when it might not have been possible otherwise if the student was away from home. For other families, it may be too much connection and lead to fighting. Some students are going home to small houses and apartments that are filled with brothers and sisters of all ages, parents, grandparents and other extended family. Even if we love every one of those family members, the inability to get breaks from family and continue to study and take classes in that situation can create strain. Other students are in situations where they cannot go home and may feel isolated from their support networks.

5. What would you recommend for them?

The first step should be trying to understand what is working and not working for the situation you are in. When something is working, do not take it for granted. Instead, work to maintain that already positive aspect. For example, maybe family mealtimes make you feel connected: How can you help with these meals to keep them going and limit the burden on any one person? Even if you cannot cook, you can help shop, set the table or just provide company when someone is cooking.

When something is not working, try to understand where the stumbling blocks are and what it is about these situations you can change. Maybe your family is sharing a computer or television and you are not able to get your work done or relax with your favorite show because someone is always using the device — try making a schedule for who gets screen time so everyone gets a fair share. Maybe your house feels crowded and you feel distracted and are having trouble studying — try talking with your family to schedule some dedicated alone time when you can study. Or consider talking to your professor about your challenges with studying at home so they can help you think about some strategies or give you more time to finish your work. Central to all of this is being honest with our needs and respecting other people’s needs as well. Communication is key.