‘I’m not panicked, I’m just flat’ – stress and COVID-19

Dr Carrie Lethborg is a senior social worker at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. She has been a leader in cancer and end-of-life care for over 30 years and has held numerous executive positions on cancer-related organisations. She has worked with BCNA for over a decade. In this article, she explains the psychological impact of COVID-19, and explores why you might be feeling drained and flat.

Dr Carrie Lethborg

Dr Carrie Lethborg

When the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, life changed for most people. However, many of us found ourselves adjusting, demonstrating the remarkable ability of humans to pivot (especially those who are around cancer).

At first, we were able to move past the initial disbelief of this major life change and shift to incorporate the new reality presented to us. The problem is that even this incredible capacity to adjust has its limits.

So, what’s actually happening from a psychological perspective to many people right now?

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an ongoing accumulation of stress for many of us.

Cumulative stress is often explained in this way: imagine you have a bucket that you keep full of good things for your wellbeing – enough sleep, good nutrition, exercise, connecting with loved ones and pets, nature, work and so on (at least we aim to).

These positive things buffer the things that drain your ‘wellbeing bucket’, like juggling work and home, relationship issues, health concerns, worry and so on. Usually we are able to balance the inputs and outputs of our bucket, adjusting as needed but generally keeping it steady.

But when stress is prolonged and accumulates; when we get one worry after another without the time to release and rebalance, we can feel drained. That’s where the symptoms of cumulative stress start to be seen.

What’s the impact of cumulative stress?

Unlike a sudden stress, where we might feel anxious and ready to run or hide, the build-up of stress over time can result in a ‘flattening’ of our mood as we hit overload.

We can feel bored, fatigued or unable to concentrate. We can lose our short-term memory, forgetting what we needed at the shop or what we were going to do when we walk into a room. To make this worse, we lose the energy to do the things that help to fill up our wellbeing bucket, because we feel listless.

This can move from relationship issues, ‘numbing’ behaviours such as alcohol or drug use, overeating and withdrawing from others to more concerning impacts on our health, ability to do work and connect with people who give us energy.

What can we do about it?

The same rules apply when it comes to managing cumulative stress as they would to any stress: you need to stop, remove yourself from the stress in some way and regroup, take a walk, turn off the news, make yourself go to bed at a reasonable time, call a friend and factor in some regular things that you know make you feel better.

It’s time to start making time again to refill our wellbeing buckets.

Structure in regular walks, yoga, meditation or stretching (or a combination), pull-back on some of the unhealthy eating that might have been creeping in and start some small projects (e.g. cleaning out a cupboard, starting a puzzle, calling a different friend every couple of nights).

We need to identify the things that are raising our anxiety, and either avoid them or alter how we encounter them.

As humans, we are amazing. We have such an incredible ability to manage change and trauma, but none of us can do this for prolonged periods of time without rebalancing regularly. More stress requires more focus on wellbeing – know what sustains you and do more of it.

You will soon find your energy to manage and enjoy things gradually return.

If you need support, call BCNA’s Helpline on 1800 500 258.

Issue 87
Spring 2020