In a recent article we wrote about stress in the workplace, how it was becoming more commonplace, the factors that were causing it and the steps an organisation might take to reduce its impact. Evidence from around the world left us in no doubt that stress was already a major challenge to both individuals and organisations. Then came Covid-19.
The Covid-19 pandemic has without doubt increased the levels of stress being experienced by individuals. What makes this worse at the present time is that research has shown that stress impacts the immune system (see also the article from the American Psychological Association, the APA). Perhaps now more important than ever, in order to stay physically healthy it is essential that we take whatever action we can to help us reduce stress and mitigate its consequences.
Above: US survey conducted on behalf of ABC News and Washington Post
The effects of stress and our immune system
Daily news bulletins, and the newspapers we read, are a constant reminder of the increasing spread of coronavirus and its tragic consequences. Isolation from friends and family, together with financial pressures from unemployment, or furloughing, add to our anxiety, all aggravated by now living a life that is very different to the one we had pre-Covid. Increases in stress levels are only natural when we face uncertainty, threats to our health and the lack of control over the still spreading virus.
Our central nervous system manages our “fight or flight” response, the brain instructing our adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The effect of this is to increase the rate at which the heart pumps blood around the body, sending it to where it is most needed. When the threat that triggered the response subsides, normality should return. But if the stressor remains then the response continues.
As well as affecting your heart, these stress hormones cause you to breathe quicker, the aim being to distribute more oxygen rich blood around the body. Blood vessels also constrict in order to divert more oxygen to muscles in preparation for action. With muscles tensing too, if this continues for prolonged periods, headaches and pain elsewhere in the body can result. Frequent or continuing stress causes the heart and breathing to work harder, and for those who already have breathing problems, high blood pressure or existing heart problems for example, the existing health risks are multiplied.
In an effort to increase the body’s energy required to respond to danger, stress also causes the liver to produce glucose. Chronic stress, the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives they have little or no control, can therefore lead to type 2 diabetes if the body is unable to cope with this increase in glucose levels. In addition, these hormones also have an effect on the digestive system, such that they can cause nausea, stomach aches, as well as impacting other bodily functions.
In preparation to counter immediate threats, stress also stimulates the immune system, in order for example to deal with potential infections and to heal wounds. Over time however, stress hormones will weaken one’s immune system and it’s ability to deal with threats to our health. Chronic stress sufferers have a higher risk of catching viral illnesses such as colds and flu as well taking an increasing amount of time to recover from them. It is clear then that the threat to our wellbeing from Covid-19 is therefore increased if we are suffering from stress at the time of exposure.
The American Psychological Association article above refers to various studies made concerning the link between stress and the immune system, observing that “for stress of any significant duration all aspects of immunity went downhill. Thus long-term or chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system”.
Our reaction to Covid-19
In our article on work related stress we referred to the many ways in which stress manifests itself. To recap, these include the following:
The current pandemic will increase the fear we have for our own health as well as that of our friends, families and colleagues; there will be changes to what we previously considered normal, including our daily routines, sleeping and eating patterns; concentrating on doing our jobs in possibly a less than suitable environment may also be a challenge; and the potential for making worse any existing health problems will also heighten the levels of stress we experience.
In addition to the effects on our bodies shown above, we may feel overwhelmed at times, feel our heart racing, feel tired, frustrated, angry, helpless, be restless and have trouble relaxing or sleeping. These are just some of the signs to look out for.
What can we do?
We should aim, where possible, to take control of our physical and mental health. Some of the following suggestions may help in that respect. Trying to only focus on what can be controlled, if that is possible, rather than on those “worries” about which we can do nothing, will help to reduce stress and anxiety. In a similar way, we sometimes tend to focus only on worst-case scenarios. Experience shows that these often do not occur, and even when they do, our capacity to deal with them is greater than sometimes we think.
Establish a daily routine: think back to the hopefully healthy routine that you had before the current lockdowns started. It would probably have consisted of ensuring you had adequate sleep; that you ate regular, healthy meals; took regular exercise, even if only walking or cycling to the station; sticking to a working timetable (it being so easy for remote working time to creep into what would have previously been regarded as “downtime”); and setting aside time for things you enjoyed doing.
Stay in touch: isolation and physical distancing does not mean you cannot stay in touch with friends and family. Technology these days, whether it be the telephone, video conferencing and such like, makes it much easier for us to keep in touch with each other. Staying in touch means not only that you can get support from others, but that you can also support others. Talking to close friends that you trust about your concerns and feelings will help you understand and handle those concerns and feelings better.
Limit your exposure to the news and social media: at the moment there seems to be very little that is positive in news bulletins, newspapers and social media. Upsetting coverage will only serve to intensify worry. Whilst it is important to stay informed, too much negative news will simply add to anxiety levels. Having an accurate source of information, one that conveys trustworthy facts and avoids unreliable sources is essential. Social media, on the other hand, is more personal: friends and contacts will tend to write about their own concerns and anxieties. Whilst empathy is an excellent trait, you might find handling your own concerns and anxieties is already enough, particularly at the present time. It may therefore help if time spent using social media is reduced for now.
Spend some time doing what you enjoy: finding time to unwind is essential, although made more difficult during these times of lockdown, especially if you are an “outdoor person”. Setting aside time to read, relax, exercise, to learn new skills, try new hobbies, or do something creative will take your mind off current concerns – even if it is only for a short time, this will be beneficial for your wellbeing.
For a more comprehensive look at stress and some of the steps that organisations can take to reduce it – from simple steps to the introduction of readily available technology – see our article on stress in the workplace.
Increased personal stress levels reduce the effectiveness of the body’s immune system. It is therefore so important, especially now, that we recognise how worries and anxieties are affecting us, and that we take steps, wherever possible, to protect ourselves from their adverse effects.
Many people are able to deal with so-called “stressors”, i.e. those pressures from situations that trigger a response from our body, such that the negative effects they have on our health are only short-term. That ability to deal with a certain level of stress, to resist certain pressures, our so-called “resilience”, differs from person to person, and is based not only on genetics but also on previous experience and the environment in which each of us lives. However, when you need more help, there is much that can be done to manage, reduce and lessen the effects of stress. At the present time it may be difficult to access face-to-face services with health and social care professionals. Online and phone support will however be available, and to find them start with a search for your local health authority or provider.
A few words about CompassAir
Creating solutions for the global maritime sector, CompassAir develops state of the art messaging and business application software designed to maximise ROI. Our software is used across the sector, including by Sale and Purchase brokers (S&P/SnP), Chartering brokers, Owners, Managers and Operators.
Through its shipping and shipbroking clients, ranging from recognised World leaders through to the smallest, most dynamic independent companies, CompassAir has a significant presence in the major maritime centres throughout Europe, the US and Asia.
Our flagship solution is designed to simplify collaboration for teams within and across continents, allowing access to group mailboxes at astounding speed using tools that remove the stress from handling thousands of emails a day. It can be cloud based or on premise. To find out more contact us at [email protected]. If you are new to shipping, or just want to find out more about this exciting and challenging sector, the CompassAir Shipping Guide might prove to be an interesting read.