In summer of 2020, in the throes of the global COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed more than 5,000 adults in the U.S. and found that symptoms of anxiety and depression had increased threefold and fourfold, respectively, compared with 2019. Meanwhile mental health hotlines were reporting surging call rates. And no wonder. The world was grappling with the devastation, fear and uncertainty of a once-in-a-century threat. Acts of racism, violence and political division made the situation profoundly worse.
Stress has immediate cascading effects on the brain, which can be beneficial in some demanding scenarios, such as impending danger. But in the long term, it fuels pathological apprehension and despondency, as Stanford University neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky explains in his essential primer that opens this collection. This type of strain runs deep. To wit, a surprising recent finding reveals that even our bones can release a hormone that activates the stress-related fight-or-flight response. And decades of studies show that women and men respond to stress differently, which is important for understanding the ways people cope while under pressure.
Ordinary life stressors are common and can help us to perform better or think faster. But particularly intense or prolonged duress may exact a broader toll: the strain of poverty and inequality can make people sick and can diminish cognitive performance in children. The coronavirus pandemic has proved to be an unprecedented source of strife. Thankfully, psychologists who specialize in trauma and disaster recovery have a good understanding of the most effective ways to handle extreme circumstances. And researchers are deploying machine learning and other tactics to gather data on the nature of resilience, empathy and coping during and after the pandemic.
Many scientifically vetted methods for self-soothing are reassuringly easy, however. Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman offers simple but powerful tactics that defuse your body’s stress response immediately. A few brisk walks during the week can strengthen biochemical hardiness in the body, and even if you’re staying home more than usual, mental downtime away from work has a powerful restorative effect on the brain. Backed by clinical evidence, the practice of mindfulness looks to have real chops for rescuing calm and focus.
A substantial proportion of individuals who have survived trauma and turmoil report that their view of life changed for the better in the aftermath. It takes perseverance and determination, to be sure, but an array of tools can help us build our resilience: friendship, goal setting and a positive mindset. These lessons should offer hope in even the most trying times that although stress cannot be vanquished, it can be managed.