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Chronic Stress Requires More Brain Power

This is the second post in a series on Adapting to Stress and Building Resilience Through the Pandemic.


Connecting to Part 1: Suffer Well, we know that:

  • “The only way out is through.”

  • Acknowledgement is the first step to exploring our underlying needs, addressing our blind and raw spots, and mitigating discomfort.

  • Resilience is made of “ordinary magic”—you don’t have to be a superhero to participate!

  • “Resilience begets resilience.”

  • “All learning passes through the filter of prior experience.”

  • Neuroplasticity is going to happen automatically, and you can influence what you reinforce!

  • All people suffer and we can learn to “suffer well”.


PART 2: Chronic Stress Requires More Brain Power

At my house, the initial shock of the emerging pandemic was followed by an emotional roller coaster that seems to keep rolling. Over two years of change and a lot of pivoting have given way to some degree of flexibility—a silver lining—and unfortunately, a degree of chronic stress. “Ride loosely in the saddle,” some say. I hear that, but we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, so how long can we stay on that horse without a break?! Our personal and professional lives continue to overlap, with best laid plans frequently upended. I have a child home from school—he had a low-grade fever and tested negative for COVID. Can I send him back to school? How much learning will be lost in the final weeks of school?

In addition to the pandemic, there have been other emotionally charged events to contend with like the war in Ukraine, the 2021 U.S. Capitol attack, and a heightened need to reckon with important social justice and human rights issues in the U.S. (and around the world). This all comes on top of each person’s specific personal and professional realities (i.e., challenges). Social and emotional needs are either going unmet or they require a lot more intention (and energy!) to pull-off. Uncertainty persists and routines and traditions are no longer predictable, or in some cases tenable. This is objectively stressful. We have spent a lot of time considering the impact of these issues on kids, and rightfully so. It needs to be said however, that adults are worn out and vulnerable too. I see it in my family and friends, my students, my colleagues, myself.

Dr. Karestan Koenen, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently explained that we have moved from experiencing and responding as if to an acute/discreet traumatic event, to that of persistent underlying stress. At the beginning of the pandemic, you may have experienced COVID-19 more like an unpredictable threat that drove your fear response and certain behaviors. Maybe you hoarded toilet paper or cooked ‘round-the-clock. There was a heightened fear and many “hunkered down” to some degree. Now though, the threat of the virus has morphed, and we are largely caught in a chronically stressful state. Importantly, the chronic background stress requires more cognitive load. This means that simple decisions are now more complicated, and we cannot do everything the way we did before. We are not performing at the same “normal” level or pace. So to slow down the tape…this helps explain why you may feel like there are not enough hours in the day right now, why you’re having a hard time focusing or may be forgetting things more frequently, why it may be harder to break habituated negative behaviors in favor of healthier ones, why some things may be harder to learn right now, or why your emotions are getting triggered without warning.

It is time to draw on the “ordinary magic,” to learn to “suffer well.” There are several actionable things you can do right now to begin to address the chronic background stress and its effects. Here are two ideas to explore: (a) build in daily time for reflection--said differently, slow down and give yourself time to think and process, and (b) try a challenge versus threat appraisal. In Part 3, I’ll explore these two ideas more deeply so stay tuned!

Until then,


Summary of Part 2: Chronic Stress Requires More Brain Power:

  • The pandemic and other events of the past two years are objectively stressful.

  • We have learned some new skills (“silver linings”), like how to “ride loosely in the saddle”, be flexible, pivot frequently, and regularly problem solve (yea!) and there are more actionable tools we can learn to help us through the chronic stress.

  • No one is immune to the biopsychosocial effects of the past two+ years, though there is a lot of individual variability.

  • Social and emotional needs are requiring more intention and energy to address and/or are going unmet.

  • The well-being of our children is extremely important AND we have perhaps forgotten how hard this is on the adults, who are worn out.

  • We have largely shifted from an acute stress response to that of chronic stress.

  • Chronic background stress demands more cognitive load.

  • Heavier cognitive load makes it harder to function optimally.

  • There are things we can do to mitigate the effects of chronic stress like building in time for reflection and shifting our mindset around specific challenges from one that views the situation as a threat to one that sees it as a challenge instead.

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