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The 3 types of stress affecting everyone in 2021 (with 9 tips on how to cope)

a struggling woman shows all types of stress

In 2021, Americans are stressed more than ever, reporting higher stress levels than in the early days of the pandemic.

If you’re sleeping less, stress-eating more, feeling anxious about social situations and using unhealthy coping methods—welcome to 2021. You’re not alone. 

More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have evidence that this past year has wreaked havoc on every aspect of life, increasing the number and intensity of stressors we deal with daily. 

Below, we’ll go over the types of stress that are common in 2021, and most importantly, how to cope in healthy ways.

Statistics on types of stress and what’s stressing us out in 2021

Pandemic stress

  • American adults reported higher stress in 2021 than at the beginning of the pandemic. In January 2021, the average stress level was 5.6. In April 2020, it was 5.4. [1]
  • 80% of American adults named the Covid-19 pandemic as a significant stressor in their lives. [1]
  • Nearly one in four adults are drinking more alcohol to cope with the stress of the pandemic. [2]
  • Of all the generations, Gen Z was the most likely to report that their mental health has gotten worse since the start of the pandemic. [2]
  • Almost half of parents said their stress levels have increased during the pandemic. [2]

Undesired physical changes

  • 42% of Americans have gained undesired weight since the pandemic started, with adults averaging a 29-pound gain. [2]
  • During the pandemic, average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped to its lowest since WWII—partly due to stress. [3]

Workplace stress and work-from-home burnout

  • 85% of employees say their workplace stress affects their mental health. [4]
  • 83% of employees feel emotionally drained by their work. [4]
  • Nearly 2 in 3 employees say they're not paid enough to save for an emergency. [4
  • In 2021, 52% of workers report feeling burned out, up from 43% in January 2020. [4]

Politics

  • In January 2021, 74% of American adults cited “political unrest around the country” as a significant stressor in their lives. [1]

Economic instability

  • In May 2021, U.S. inflation hit its highest rate since 2008. [5
  • The U.S. unemployment rate in May 2021 dropped to 5.8% but still has not returned to its pre-pandemic level of 3.5% in February 2020. [6]

Climate change

  • 2020 saw record-breaking extreme weather events in the U.S., totaling roughly $95 billion in damages. [7]
  • The effects of climate change put children at risk of mental health issues, including PTSD, depression, anxiety and phobias. [8]

Racism

  • A majority of Americans say there is at least some discrimination against Black people, with nearly half saying there is “a lot.” [9]
  • Anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in 16 of the largest U.S. cities and counties surged 164% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020. [10]
  • In April 2021, Asian American adults were more likely to express fear over being threatened or physically attacked than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. [11]
  • Covid-19 disproportionately affected minority groups in the U.S., with high rates of death in African American, Native American, and Latino communities. [12]
Table of contents

What is stress?

Stress is the “fight or flight” response that our body activates to protect us whenever it senses a threat. When activated in response to a real threat, it can save us. When activated in response to false threats over and over, it can harm us.

“Our stress response is an evolutionary miracle that was meant to be switched on in those rare occasions that we encountered something genuinely threatening,” explains Erika Ferszt, founder of Moodally. “Because of the way modern life is today, we can react the same way to someone cutting us off in line at the Starbucks as we would if someone was actually threatening us. This is why it’s so important to have a stress management strategy in place for everyday use.”

What are the 3 types of stress?

Acute stress

Acute stress comes on suddenly and passes relatively quickly.

Example of acute stress: You’re watching the news in March 2020 and find out the first case of coronavirus has just been found in your city. Your heart races as you realize the threat of disease has made it so close to home, but it subsides within minutes as the newscaster moves onto the next story.

Episodic acute stress

When acute stress is frequently triggered, it can become episodic acute stress.

Example of episodic acute stress: Every day, you see new Covid case counts rising as your office extends its work-from-home policy for the third time. Now, what was once acute is now episodic because it’s happening with frequency.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress occurs over an extended period and is usually brought about by circumstances, such as poverty, unemployment, economic instability or civil unrest.

Example of chronic stress: You’ve endured more than one year of isolation due to the pandemic as you’ve seen strangers, neighbors and loved ones battle Covid. This is an extended period of what started out as an acute stressor. Now, you’re chronically stressed due to the circumstances around you.

Definitions of chronic stress often use verbiage like “extended period of time” or “long-term,” but just how long does stress have to last in order to be considered “chronic”? According to Rajita Sinha, PhD, director of the Yale Stress Center, three to five of these stress-related symptoms lasting for more than several weeks might qualify as chronic stress:

  • Aches and pains 
  • Insomnia or sleepiness 
  • A change in social behavior, such as staying in often 
  • Low energy 
  • Unfocused or cloudy thinking 
  • Change in appetite 
  • Increased alcohol or drug use 
  • Change in emotional responses to others
  • Emotional withdrawal

How to cope with the different types of stressors this year: 9 expert tips

1. Replace your critical inner monologue with compassion.

For Janette Marsac, LMSW, RDN psychotherapist at Forward in Heels, the most common stressor coming up during therapy sessions is a lack of self-confidence in social settings.

“For many, the anxiety of social gatherings is projected to their outer appearance, how they’ll look and feel in their clothes,” she explains. “Weight fluctuations and changes to body compositions affected most people during the pandemic. Fitness centers closed, workout routines were modified if followed at all, people engaged in less daily movement while working from home and eliminating the commute, the kitchen and snacks were more easily accessible, cooking and baking projects became social media challenges, and some turned to food for entertainment.”

What Marsac says resonates with me deeply. I don’t know anyone who didn’t struggle with body image during quarantine (myself included). And this is the most powerful statement that helped me cope: “Your body carried you through a deadly pandemic.” It did its job of helping you survive! Celebrate that.

“Our bodies are designed to do so much more than look cute in jeans,” Marsac reminds us. “During a deadly pandemic, our bodies kept us alive and well. These same bodies will now accompany us to dinner with family, dance in nightclubs and party with friends. Clients learn to hold feelings simultaneously, that we can be dissatisfied with our appearance while also grateful for our body’s capabilities. Showing your body compassion reduces the energy driven in shame.”

It’s important to realize the limitations of this, though. If you suspect that what you’re experiencing might be disordered eating, bring it up with your doctor or a therapist. They’ll be able to give you qualified, personalized advice and help you get back to being healthy.

2. Define what your needs are

“The most common stressors I am seeing in clients in 2021 is how to navigate returning to a social life post-pandemic,” says therapist Hannah Tishman, LCSW. “Clients are often reporting difficulty saying no to opportunities after not having had access to socializing for so long due to the pandemic. However, clients are becoming overwhelmed by this drastic change from not socializing to too much socializing, leading to an imbalance and exhaustion.” 

To combat this, Tishman recommends asking yourself what your needs are and accepting or rejecting opportunities based on those needs. By doing this, you no longer have to feel the pressure of saying “yes” to everything.

3. Find balance with the plate metaphor

If you’re finding yourself overcommitting to social events or overworking at your job, listen to these words of wisdom from burnout and stress management coach Ellyn Schinke

“I encourage my clients to think about their life, their time and their bandwidth like a plate and to ask themselves if they're putting more on their plate than they can support,” she says. “Some of us have really strong foundations made out of concrete, and others of us have foundations made out of cardboard. What often happens is we pile on obligations, and either our flimsy foundations can't take the weight, or there just isn't enough room to accommodate everything. So, you have to make adjustments. You have to take things off your plate when you're clearly folding or breaking under the weight of your responsibilities—and you have to have some self-compassion in doing so.”

So if you see someone else taking on more than you are, that’s okay. Maybe they just have more room on their plate.

4. Conduct a weekly review

Another way Schinke helps her clients avoid burnout is by having them do a weekly review. This can be a Sunday night or Monday morning check-in on what’s working and what’s not.

“That really helps them make adjustments as needed,” she says. “If you know that you have a work week coming up that is going to ask a lot of you, take on less socially and personally. If you're dealing with a really heavy personal time, adjust accordingly at work. Using the real-time data and information you can get from reviewing yourself can allow you to make the adjustments you need to navigate through stress.”

5. Limit your news intake

Whether it’s rising Covid case counts or another grueling political event, news stories can activate your fight-or-flight response. Though some people have gone to the extreme of cutting out news altogether, that’s not always necessary. 

Instead, place limitations on your news consumption. For example, it can be helpful to know where your country generally stands in the fight against Covid—but does checking the new case counts every single morning really help you? Additionally, reading the local newspaper instead of watching a 24-hour international news channel may be more helpful to you. Why? 

  1. It’s less stressful because you determine the pace at which you consume the news, and it is devoid of extra emotion added on by fast-paced music and urgent tones of voice. Newspaper stories also tend to go into much more depth than TV news stories because the latter is severely restricted by time.
  2. It can grant you a greater feeling of agency or control over your world because it’s easier to change things at a local level than at a national one.

So if you feel your blood pressure rising as you turn on the evening news, give yourself permission to skip it for the night.

6. Carve out time away from those you live with

Being cooped up in our houses, even with people we love, can be disastrous. If you feel frazzled being around your family so much, you’re not alone. 

Take this advice from Dr. Christine Murray, director of the UNC Greensboro Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships: “One of the major tips in any relationship is to spend time together but to also have time apart. It’s healthy to have outside interests and friendships or connections with your community, yet that’s been physically taken away from us.”

Many states and countries are now opening up and vaccines are rolling out, so getting time outside the house (safely) is becoming more and more possible. But even if you can’t get out much, staying connected to friends through video chats, text messages and phone calls is an alternative.

7. Try the Reunite Tool

Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and relationship coach, says the most common stressor he's seeing in 2021 is couples' unresolved resentments, exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Being around one another so much created more resentments for a lot of couples,” he says.

To help couples find peace, Dr. Fisher teaches them a method called the Reunite Tool. He says it “allows them to talk through their resentments in a constructive way without either partner feeling criticized.” With this tool, if you wanted to bring up a complaint to your significant other, you would go through these four steps:

  1. Comment on their improvement. Give them a bit of praise and acknowledgment for improving upon a complaint you’ve mentioned before.
  2. Comment on how they may be innocent. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they may not have intentionally hurt you.
  3. Own your part in the conflict. Mention how you may have shared responsibility in this conflict.
  4. And then state your complaint. Finally, tell them simply what happened and what you need from them.

“Stressful romantic relationships can cloud your entire existence,” says Dr. Fisher. “Therefore, working through resentments is a vital first step to clear the emotional air so couples can slowly start meeting one another's needs again.”

8. Practice mindfulness

“Common stressors our practice is seeing is parent guilt during Covid,” says licensed psychologist Donna Novak. “Children are having a real hard time in school, social distancing and moving everything virtually. Parents are acting as both a teacher and parent during that hard time. They feel guilty for what their children are experiencing and the family being disconnected as a whole.”

One way to combat stress, Novak says, is to practice mindfulness. “Understand what comes up for you in moments of stress and worry and rewrite a positive outcome or narrative,” she says. “Have open conversations with family members and work through moments of frustration or stress through using ‘I’ statements or engaging in active listening.”

9. Talk to a therapist or doctor

If you’re overwhelmed by stress, talking to a therapist is always a good idea. As licensed mental health professionals, they have the tools to assess, diagnose and treat mental health issues that are difficult to cope with. 

These days, there are many therapy options that don’t even require leaving your house. Online platforms such as Talkspace and BetterHelp can be viable options to meet with a therapist from the comfort of your home.

It's also completely appropriate to talk about your stress levels with your doctor; it is, after all, a health issue. You can schedule an appointment to discuss with your physician the symptoms that you've been having and express that you need some help. Your doctor should be able to point you in the right direction or provide a treatment plan to help you cope with your stress levels.

These types of stress don’t have to rule your life

To say that we’re all dealing with many types of stress in 2021 is an understatement. Just know that you’re certainly not alone in feeling the weight of everything this pandemic (and more) has brought on. Hopefully, these expert tips will be a starting point for you to find healthy ways to cope.

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