The American Psychological Association recently reported that in February 2021, U.S. adults have recorded their highest levels of stress since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began impacting the communities CHD serves in Western Mass. and Connecticut nearly one year ago.
The most common feelings reported by those APA surveyed were that of anxiety (47%), sadness (44%) and anger (39%). Two in three adults said the number of issues Americans are facing currently is overwhelming to them.
From unemployment and fatigue to education shifts and existing chronic health issues, there are unprecedented stressful consequences from the pandemic that members of CHD’s team are not only impacted by in their own lives but with which they are helping others to cope.
In addition to creating or deepening challenges for mental health, this type of prolonged and persistent stress caused by the pandemic, especially at such a magnitude, can also have an impact on physical health, shared Shannon Hicks, program director for CHD’s outpatient behavioral health services in Greenfield and Easthampton, MA.
“Our bodies typically have a fight and flight response when we experience a traumatic event; that’s usually a stressful event that occurs and then eventually passes in a shorter amount of time,” Hicks explained. “But this has been really chronic. For those that we support, and our staff, this ongoing stress blanket and the unknown of what’s next definitely connects to our physical health.”
Hicks explained that, the activation of this long-term stress response can negatively affect the body in a variety of ways. In addition to impacting cardiovascular and respiratory health, sleep and concentration, the effects of stress can become even more challenging to manage for those already experiencing a chronic health challenge.
Further, Hicks explained that there are other ways in which the physical health of many CHD serves is affected by stress, or by effects of the pandemic, which contribute to or cause stress in and of itself. For instance, some may not be getting much physical activity or taking as good of care of themselves in other ways. They may also be having trouble sleeping; as an important factor in recovering from both mental and physical exertion, this deficit, over a long period of time, can even further contribute to stress and anxiety.
Finances have also shifted for many individuals and families, and while that may affect stress, it can also affect someone’s physical health via their access to healthy food options. In addition to food insecurity, this impact on finances has also resulted in many experiencing housing instability, thereby amplifying stress and anxiety and its effects on the body.
Over time, this lingering stress can cause people to experience fatigue, while also pushing them to find ways to cope or maintain their energies.
“The exhaustion that people feel, it’s not really going away necessarily, and so people are learning to cope in some ways,” Hicks said. She added that not all coping methods have been as effective or as healthy for some. Hicks also drew distinctions between people’s access to resources and a stable environment and how that has an impact on stress during such unprecedented circumstances.
“There’s a lot of things in my life that I was able to work from in order to cope with what’s happening,” she explained. “I have a safe family environment. I have a job. I have financial security. But the reality is that many of those we serve at CHD don’t have those things. They don’t have those basic needs met when there isn’t a pandemic going on.”
Clinic Supervisor for CHD’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services in Greenfield Nancy Parland shared that one of the important contributing factors to the wellness of those served was their formation of positive relationships and their sense of connection with the community.
“There are some people we serve who ordinarily direct their energies toward involvement in various experiences in the community in Franklin County, like going to the ‘Y’ and participating in support organizations or volunteer work,” Parland explained. “But as a lot of that has gone away, people have been caught up in the vortex of being home without those ties to the community.”
With a special focus on helping those they serve stay active, maintain healthy habits and also feel that connection to the community, both Hicks and Parland commended CHD staff in Greenfield—from clinical and community support staff to recovery coaches and case managers—on how they’ve worked to figure out creative ways to connect with participants in the community when possible.
Further, at CHD’s Greenfield Center for Wellness, staff have been able to transition many of the wellness classes typically offered in-person, including yoga, meditation, cooking workshops and more, to virtual formats available to those they serve.
Staff and participants alike have responded well to the availability of virtual wellness activities, Hicks shared, but she also recognized that for some, being active is really challenging right now. In such cases, staff have helped empower those they serve to look at other opportunities to focus on their wellness, whether it’s centering on healthy eating or sleep hygiene, or taking medication as prescribed.
“The connection between physical and behavioral health is a really big part of the work we do in Greenfield and across the division,” Hicks said. “It’s so important for people to understand that one doesn’t take precedence over the other. They’re not mutually exclusive, and they greatly impact one another.”