How Ambient Stress May Be Hurting Your Mental Health

mericans’ mental health tanked during the first year of the pandemic. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 36% experienced anxiety and depression by August 2020. The number had risen to 40% by January 2021.

It’s not hard to see why. It was a scary and new virus that spread without any vaccines. To avoid special occasions, many citizens avoided visits to their loved ones and forewent visiting friends and families for large parts of 2020. There was a lot of isolation and fear, with people feeling acutely stressed.

But even as lockdowns lifted, people got vaccinated, and life resumed more of its normal rhythms, many people continued to feel…off. In an American Psychological Association survey published in October 2021, 75% of people said they’d recently experienced consequences of stress, including headaches, sleep issues, fatigue, and feeling overwhelmed.

Now, more than two years into the pandemic, many people still haven’t bounced back. One reason could be “ambient stress”—or “stress that’s running in the background, below the level of consciousness,” says New York-based clinical psychologist Laurie Ferguson, who is director of education development at the Global Healthy Living Foundation, a nonprofit that supports people with chronic illnesses.

“There’s something amiss, but we’re not registering it all the time,” Ferguson says. “We’re always just a little bit off balance. We kind of function at a level like everything’s fine and things are normal, when in fact, they’re not.”

A 1983 paper published in the journal Environment and BehaviorJoan Campbell, a researcher, defined ambient stressors to be those which are persistent and adverse, can’t be substantially changed by an individual and usually don’t cause immediate dangers to life (but may be harmful over time), are often perceptible and sometimes unnoticed. “Over the long run,” Campbell wrote, these stressors could affect “motivation, emotions, attention, [physical] health, and behavior.”

Campbell cited examples like pollution and traffic noise, but it’s also an apt description of this stage of the pandemic. In March 2020, the pandemic was an in-your-face stressor—one that, at least for many people, felt urgent and all-consuming. Most people are now able to adapt, at least in part, two years later. Most people are vaccinated, the news isn’t broadcasting the latest case counts 24/7, and life looks closer to 2019 than 2020. But, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re still bearing the psychic toll of two years of death, disease, upheaval, and uncertainty, as well as smaller disruptions like changes to our social or work lives, Ferguson says.

Campbell noted that even ambient stress can cause health problems. Humans evolved to deal with short-term stressors, but we’re not as good at coping with chronic stress, explains Laura Grafe, an assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College. Chronic stress is linked to conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and sleep issues. It can also be associated with mental health problems and cognitive disorders.

Other stressors can be exacerbated by chronic stress. “Everything else just seems worse with the chronic stress of the pandemic going on in the background,” Grafe says.

Ambient stress doesn’t have to zap all the joy from your life, though. Grafe, along with her co-authors, studied how the effects of pandemic stress on sleep and their coping strategies. Her team found that a person’s sleep quality wasn’t necessarily dictated by their overall level of pandemic-related stress, but rather by how well they coped with that stress. That suggests stress, itself, isn’t necessarily the problem—it’s unmanaged stress.

When stress becomes so routine that we stop acknowledging it, we’re less likely to manage it effectively. As Cambell wrote in 1983, “coping is most likely to occur when the stressor is still novel.” Halfway through 2022, many people have abandoned soothing hobbies like bread-baking, yoga, and knitting that they adopted in spring 2020.

That’s why it’s important to develop sustainable coping strategies, says Niccole Nelson, a postdoctoral research associate in the University of Notre Dame’s psychology department who has also studied pandemic stress. “There’s no single coping strategy that is inherently good or bad,” Nelson says, but it’s often helpful to mentally reframe a stressor as less threatening. That’s difficult to do with something as serious as the pandemic, but Nelson suggests trying it on a smaller scale: finding ways to appreciate the positive aspects of working from home, for example. To cope with stress,Grafe recommends mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Ferguson states that giving your brain new stimulation can help you cope with prolonged stress. You can make small, positive changes like changing your breakfast routine or walking a different route each day. She also suggests that physical activity can be a proven stress-relieving strategy.

Ferguson suggests that simply naming and noting your environment can make a big difference. “Even people who have gone ‘back to normal’ still have that ambient stress running, and they may not realize they’re a little more short-tempered, or they’re a little less hopeful,” she says. “It’s subtle, in many ways, and harder to notice” than full-blown pandemic stress, but just as important to manage.

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