The Toll of Stress on COVID-affected Families

Family holding hands

By Mariette Danilo, PhD, Tridiuum Guest Blogger

When a family member is diagnosed with COVID-19, it can feel like free falling down an abyss with nothing to hold on to. Feelings of helplessness can paralyze patients, families, and all those connected to them. The good news is that we have more control over the future — and how we react to it — than we think we have.

When I received the phone call in early March that my youngest son Nick was experiencing labored breathing and coughing up blood, my heart dropped into my stomach. What had started as a low-grade fever quickly worsened. He drove himself to the hospital where they found symptoms consistent with pneumonia. He was put on antibiotics for what was considered a secondary infection, provided with a pulse oximeter (which needed to remain over 98%), and advised to keep taking Tylenol for the fever. Nick was then sent home and, fortunately, recovered within the week.

His providers did test for COVID, but the results came back negative, much to our surprise. Given recent evidence of false negatives and that he lives and works in New York (in an enclosed environment that experts now recognize as a virtual petri dish for COVID-19), it’s likely he did contract the virus. This confusing diagnosis compounded the fear, stress, and uncertainty we shared as a family, and that many families touched by the pandemic have experienced.

(Related reading: Post-traumatic Growth and Understanding the Impact of Trauma)

Experts such as University of Pennsylvania researcher Martin Seligman, agree that people like to feel in control of outcomes, and when they feel that outcomes are independent of their actions, depression and anxiety are often not far behind. And a lack of control is just what COVID has brought with it, affecting nearly everyone — be it indirectly through safer-at-home-orders or directly through illness or death. The phrases “uncertain times” and “new normal” are, in fact, our new normal, and we simply do not know what the next few years will look like.

This uncertainty, imposed isolation, mixed messages from experts and government officials, added to physical, psychological, and economic threats, create a perfect storm for chronic stress. Linked to serious illness and disease, if not managed chronic stress can be deadly. Many people are more likely to suffer from symptoms of chronic stress than from the coronavirus itself, and this mental health fallout is not just around the corner, it’s here now.

According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 percent of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over COVID-19 with the burden likely to continue even as the pandemic’s threat diminishes. (Kaiser Family Foundation)

Recognizing chronic stress

How individuals respond to stress is not one-size-fits-all. We each have our own tipping points for becoming overwhelmed. Individuals may have different symptoms and responses depending on numerous factors including age, gender, and mental health condition. Additionally, one could speculate that there may be variation in the reactions and physical condition of people who contracted and recovered from COVID-19.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Patricia Donoghue says that one of the keys to spotting symptoms of unmanaged stress is to notice a deviation from the baseline of someone’s usual behavior. That is, if the individual is just not themselves. Therefore, it’s critical that we each be acutely aware of our loved ones’ behavior during stressful times. Family members and those close to us can be helpful in noticing behavior changes such as sleep disturbances, changes in eating habits, sudden weight gain or loss, becoming more withdrawn or more irritable than usual, and any other change in typical behavior. In addition, we must also be proactive in our own self-care.

(Related reading: With COVID-19, Sleepless Nights are Becoming Common)

Taking back control

In order to navigate successfully through this pandemic and thwart feelings of powerlessness, it’s more important than ever to control what we can. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and researcher at Stanford University, has found that a person’s subjective belief in their own ability to cope successfully is a crucial factor in their actual response to stress. And so, it becomes important to exert control over healthy activities like:

  • Maintaining relationships with healthcare providers
  • Getting timely and regular checkups
  • Taking advantage of measurement-based-care and health monitoring devices

A physical or psychological measure is a snapshot of a person’s overall health that, taken at strategic points over time, provide a dynamic view of the synergy between one’s physical and mental health. This holistic picture of health opens up opportunities for early intervention and gives the patient more control over their own outcomes.

Thoughtfully consider professional advice and be present in intervention, whether that be medication or lifestyle changes for improved health. Consider participating in programs and exercises to reduce anxiety and manage stress, such as relaxation techniques like mindfulness or programs for exercise and weight management, all which have a dramatic impact on anxiety and depression.

(Related reading: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times)

Although we cannot predict what’s to come, we can control what we do today and how we respond rather than react. We can then face a future we have helped to create.