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