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5 ways living in a pandemic is affecting you (that you might not realise!)

By January 23, 2021No Comments

Random aches and pains? Memory failure? Run down? Bowel problems? Or just a general crankiness you can’t shake? Gillian Roddie explores the physical and psychological manifestations of Covid stress…


Stress is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Some of us have been subjected to it more than others over the years, most of us have flirted with it, and very few of us can say we’ve ever truly escaped it. Indeed we need small doses of positive stress or “eustress” in order to help us to grow and thrive as we push ourselves in the face of challenges.

But it’s safe to say that the volume and intensity of stress that we’ve been facing almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic is… well, it’s quite extraordinary (if you’re wondering if I have a thesaurus tab open to avoid using *that* word, you’d be flipping right, reader).

Stress pops up as a topic of interest as cyclically as any other popular health topic: seasonal affective disorder in winter; pollen allergy remedies in spring; how to choose the right sunscreen in summer. But unless you’re in the throes of a challenging period of your life, it’s fair to say that we gloss over accounts of the impact of stress on our bodies and minds.


Here’s the thing: right now you ARE in the throes of a challenging period of your life. The challenge might look a little different depending on where you are in your life story, but the stress manifests in the same curious physiological ways that we may well have read about before in a glossy magazine while waiting for our highlights to take hold in a salon, but never experienced. Until now.

In November 2020 a survey carried out by Aviva Health found that mental health had overtaken cancer as the primary reason for a protective claim. Almost a million stress-related sick days had been taken since the start of the pandemic, with about 51% of 25-44 year olds saying they were stressed, compared to 38% pre-pandemic. More women than men reported anxiety and stress overall, with 84% of self-employed women saying they were very stressed.


Let’s get right down to basics so that we’re all singing from the same healthcare hymn sheet: what is stress in the first place? Biologically speaking any internal (intrinsic) or external (extrinsic) stimulus that causes a biological response is considered a stress. Not all stress is created equally, and our bodies need stress in appropriate doses to function optimally – at a micro level our cells need stress to help them build “psychobiological resilience”.

This concept extends to the macro level also, and small amounts of stress help us to build psychological resilience in our daily lives. In the short term stress might also enhance immune function by preparing our bodies for a fight against unseen micro-invaders with the mobilisation of molecules called interleukins, major players in the body’s inflammatory response.

But it’s quantity that makes the poison, and benefits from stress are quickly drowned out or replaced by the negative effects of repeated and heavy stress. There’s almost no part of the body that isn’t affected by stress, but unlike a broken arm or a disease diagnosis that we can point at and blame, the vague and nonspecific nature of the symptoms of stress mean we can easily overlook them. With this in mind, as you navigate your way through one of the most challenging times of your life, do any of these hit different?

1. Random aches and pains and an unshakeable feeling of bone-tiredness

One of the most insidious products of stress – and one that is a repeated factor in many of the symptoms we’ll talk about here – is the inflammation it causes at a cellular level. Inflammation is a very generalised response to a stressor by our immune system, and part of that response is the release of chemicals called cytokines, which act as signals to tell the body if it needs to proceed or recede the immune response. But the presence of these cytokines can trigger joint pain and cause fatigue – we’re not really sure how it does this, but inflammation is a marker of both rheumatoid arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome.

2. Your memory has gone to pot, your brain feels like it’s suspended in treacle and is somehow… smaller?

Stress has an epically big effect on our nervous system, to the point that it can change the shape of the brain, predominantly shrinking the hippocampus. We can’t feel the difference in shape, but we can feel the impact it has on our learning, understanding and memory.

It’s also thought that chronic stress affects how well our brain converts short term memory to long term memory thanks to the effect that cortisol (one of the main stress hormones) has on the hippocampus. Under normal non-stressful conditions, the hippocampus regulates production of cortisol, but excess stress throws that system out of whack. Too much or unrelenting cortisol causes the hippocampus to malfunction, and affects how well we encode memories and retrieve information. So no, your absent mindedness is not a sign that your intelligence has floated out the window of a well ventilated room, it’s caused by the stress of the pandemic requiring us to open it.

And there’s more! (It’s a fairly special piece of kit is the hippocampus). Along with other parts of the brain like the amygdala and the temporal lobe, the hippocampus is also involved in cognition, or how we understand, experience and sense our surroundings. And just as memory and learning are reduced, so too is cognition. Stress literally makes it harder for us to make sense of the world.

3. You feel run down, or you’ve been getting infections or feeling ill more than you normally would

The link between stress and our immune system has long been known, if not fully understood. Many cultures will tell of those who were of a “weaker” mindset being more likely to succumb to illness; in the middle of the 20th century researchers began to hypothesise and prove that people were more likely to fall ill following a sudden, major, and extremely successful lifestyle change. This is down to the stress-induced inflammatory response, and stress hormones like corticosteroids decrease immune cell numbers.

4. Your toilet habits have changed

There’s two primary ways that our stress affects our tummies: via our appetite, and via our poop. While short-term stress can inhibit our appetite (we often don’t feel like eating before giving a presentation or having to speak in front of people), long term stress does the opposite. Persistent stress and the resulting elevation in cortisol will cause our appetite to also increase, and studies have shown that the food of choice will change during times of distress, in animals at least, who show preference for high calorie, fat and sugar options.

Stress can also change how food moves through our bowel, either speeding it up to cause diarrhoea, or slowing it down causing constipation. How your bowel responds to stress will usually depend on which type of extreme poop you’re most prone to.

5. You’re pretty irritable and cranky

To be fair, there’s quite a range of reasons why we might be a little spiky mood-wise right now. We’re isolated from our friends and support systems, we’re worried about the health of our families, we live under a constant threat of infection, and our most basic psychological needs are barely or not being met. Anger and aggression are a common reaction to threat, and that’s what this pandemic poses for us: a threat to our normality and our lives as we know them. We do not respond well to the uncertainty the pandemic has created for us; our brain sees it in the same context as we would have seen a sabre-toothed tiger tens of thousands of years ago.

We have the epidemiological equivalent of ice age predators on our doorstep daily, and our brain is being primed for threat without respite.


It’s quite difficult – impossible? – to avoid stress entirely right now, what with the ongoing global state of emergency. But this is where true self-care strategies become extremely important, and it’s worth investigating and applying strategies that help to directly combat the effects of chronically raised cortisol.

Exercise provides the opportunity to gain a sense of achievement and a distraction, as well as the many physical benefits. Therapy will help you to look at the whats, whys and hows of the root of your stress (I know, d’uh, pandemic, but it might be that it’s triggering unresolved issues). Yoga, meditation or mindfulness engage your parasympathetic nervous system to combat the effects of stress, and turning your exposure to the news down or off entirely can help remove the element of threat from your day.

In light of everything happening at the moment we’re not going to be able to stop stress entirely, but knowing what it looks like and naming it will help to demystify it when it’s happening. This too shall pass.

It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.


Photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash