We’ve heard many discussions about the “new normal” over the past two years, but the concept doesn’t just relate to the pandemic. Experts say many of us have become accustomed to living in a heightened state of stress and anxiety -- and may not even realize how bad the situation has become.
“Everything sort of piled on, and you’re just used to putting one foot in front of the other,” explained Neuropsychologist Dr. Adrianna Zec at Henry Ford Health.
Zec said living daily life in “survival mode” is not sustainable.
“We can be in survival mode for discrete periods of time. We need to be in survival mode to get through things, but when it’s extended to that length of time, it really leads to kind of unhealthy patterns that are not good for us,” said Zec.
The adverse effects can be physical and mental.
“It releases cortisol in our bodies, which is toxic to us. It makes it harder for us to think and process. We’re often getting referrals for people who are saying, ‘I just can’t pay attention’ or ‘My memory is just shot,’ and it’s unlikely that that’s a brain problem,” Zec explains. “It’s just overload, and the brain is not set up to help us do what we’re doing right now for over the long haul.”
Zec said it’s essential to give the brain a complete stop regularly. She recommends mindfulness activities like meditation.
“Quieting that system back down by doing some things that really tell our brains, ‘No, you’re okay. This is not a survival mode. You’re okay. You’re going to make it through.’ And our thoughts really do determine a lot of the outcome,” said Zec.
Zec acknowledges some people are facing challenging situations.
“Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t change people’s circumstances. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And that then becomes, I think, where people do get into trouble because they are not able to put themselves first or even second or third. Sometimes people are not only providing care for their parents, but then they have caregiving responsibilities. And so we can’t, you know, magically fix those things,” said Zec.
But it’s important to do what you can.
“Even just small changes that can be made throughout the day, a break for mindfulness, a walk, something that can kind of help to promote that idea that the person kind of driving the ship is really important as well,” said Zec.
Committing to setting aside a few minutes a day can help. If you wear a smartwatch or have a cell phone, Zec recommends setting a reminder to stop and breathe at different points in your day.
“Unfortunately, sometimes people reach that point where they do just fall down and everything collapses, and so trying to know that you have to steal this time to avoid that, that eventuality,” said Zec.
Zec also recommends getting back to a routine of healthy sleeping and eating and building in an activity every day that supports you or that you look forward to.
If you’re really struggling, reach out for professional help. Talking to your primary care doctor is an excellent place to start.
We also asked Detroiters about the stress they’ve faced and how they deal with it.
Margaret Story has experienced a lot of loss.
“There’s been a lot of death in my family. I lost my baby sister two years ago to pancreatic cancer. And then, just in one year, we lost ten family members, just back to back to back,” said Story. “It can really take you to the bottom of the barrel. And you got to just figure out a way how you can get yourself back together and get back on top of the game.”
How does she manage stress?
“I do a lot of reading. I attend church on a regular basis,” said Story.
She also prays a lot, takes long walks, and attends water aerobics.
A Detroiter named Diana says she knows how it feels when life becomes overwhelming.
“I used to have panic attacks that were really bad,” she said. “I thought my throat was tightening up, and I wasn’t able to breathe anymore.”
Diana said constant stress could take an enormous toll.
“It affects our work. We’re not going to be the highest performing people, and also, we take out the stress on our families. And we don’t want our families to, you know, feel uncomfortable around us or stressed out. And we don’t want to pass that stress onto them,” she said.
Her recipe for relief?
“I make sure I do something every day to make myself happy,” said Diana. “Like, for example, I journal, I do work out, my dogs help me get me out of the house and go for a walk. I try to get my sleep. I try to have a great diet. Right now, I’m a vegetarian. So I know that diet works for me very well and helps me deal with stress too. Journaling helps me with stress the most because I get to put all my stress down on a piece of paper, and then that just helps me relieve all my stress just to see it on a piece of paper and not in my brain anymore.”