Stress in 2020: Are Any of Us Okay?

CW: Suicidal ideation; mention of failed suicide attempts; systemic racism; mention of police brutality; mention of prominent political figures.

Before you read this article, take a moment to breathe. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Roll your shoulders back, and stretch if you can. Fix your posture to something comfortable that doesn’t restrict breathing. Unclench your jaw. Try another breath. Better? Okay, let’s continue.

One day back in September, after grabbing a socially-distanced drive-through coffee, I saw a woman lying flat in the middle of the road outside of my apartment. When I pulled up, my husband rolled his window down and asked if she was okay. Before he could get a full word out she pointed a finger, yelled “SHUT UP”, and walked away. We looked around for her – or anyone looking for her – but didn’t see anything. We sat in silence for a while, but as we pulled into our parking spot, my husband turned to me and asked: “Did we do something wrong?”

I understood his worry. We had not pursued her aggressively. We had not called the police. We had not found anyone who knew her. The woman was Black – even if we knew where she had gone, calling 911 could risk her life. I contemplated making a post on a community-based app like NextDoor, but I know the part of our neighborhood that participates in those apps is predominantly conservative, white, pro-Trump, and prone to calling the police over “suspicious dog-walking”. We stared at each other haggardly for a moment before I shook my head. “I don’t think so. I don’t think she wanted help. We could have put her in more danger by pushing it. If we find anyone looking for her, we’ll let them know.” My husband nodded, clearly numb. “Do you think she’s okay?” “I don’t know,” I replied. After another moment of silence, he nodded again. “No one is okay right now.”

I’ve been meaning to write a post on “Stress in 2020” for months and months, floundering on where to begin. I have had mixed reactions to other articles on the subject, ranging from bored and unimpressed to wrathfully indignant. To write a casual article on “stress in 2020” feels like an implication that stress in 2020 is somehow still casual. I put the last draft of this down in September after I saw that girl in the road. For most of us, this level of stress is unprecedented, but even the word “unprecedented” is bandied around so much in the media that it feels meaningless, pointless, insulting; even if it’s accurate. Everything is “unprecedented.” Every single thing. To write and advise on stress, however, I have to understand stress. I have to quantify it. A few months ago I dug up a test from the American Institute of Stress, called the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory (https://www.stress.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/stress-inventory-1.pdf). The document lists various life disruptions, both positive and negative, and scores them a point value between 11 (traffic ticket) and 100 (death of a spouse). The test taker must go down the list and check off any and all stressors that have affected them in the last 12 months. As is to be expected with any document designed in 2019 or earlier, “global pandemic” is not included, nor are any other 2020 specifics, so when tallying up my own score, I mentally added in 39 points: somewhere between “death of a close friend” (38 points), and “pregnancy” (40). Several of the larger stressors (major change in health or behavior of a family member, for example) have affected me more than once this year, so I took that into consideration in my total as well.

The Holmes-Rahe inventory scores your final results in three sections: low risk of major health breakdown in the next two years (less than 150 total points), moderate risk of health breakdown (150-300 points), and 80% or more risk of major health breakdown (greater than 300 points). My most recent score, as of this morning, was 794. I took a long moment to dwell on that number after I wrote it out. I thought about my father, newly retired, who only told me about his degenerative lung disease three months into quarantine (44 points). I thought about my brother, who was let go from both of his jobs within a week (44 points). I thought about how many points I was missing for each time I thought seasonal allergies or a common cold might be covid, or for each time I saw the American death count escalate in the news. I thought about how those numbers still didn’t seem to cover the events of this year. I thought about that girl lying in the road.

After contemplating all of that, I have some “bad news” conclusions and some “good news” conclusions. The bad news is, I’m sure most of my readers’ numbers would also climb above 300. It’s hard to imagine that most Americans’ wouldn’t. It’s also hard to call a number that high as anything except “trauma”. This entire country has been actively traumatized for months, and months, and months. The good news is twofold: First, this stress scale measures only events, not bodily stress levels. It measures the likelihood of a breakdown, assuming that you have next to no coping skills for this level of stress. Secondly, speaking as someone who has experienced several trauma-and-stress-induced major health breakdowns, there are many things you can do to get by and to recover. I’m sure you have taught yourself many coping and healing strategies this year, and with help, you can learn many more. Understand that with trauma, and with the worthy burden of caring about others, comes the need to care for yourself to a level you might never have had to do before. A previous therapist of mine referred to this as “self-caring like a M*ther F***er”. My dad refers to it as “eating the elephant one bite at a time”.

Here’s where I would start: How’s your posture? Take a deep breath. Roll your shoulders, stretch if you can. Unclench that jaw. Did reading this article add to your bodily stress? If so, imagine what kind of stress your body is holding from the stress of this year. You can learn to let that go, bit by bit, the same way you have right now. You can brace yourself for future stress the same way you did at the beginning of this article. Now, take a break. Step away from work as soon as you can, and take 10-15 minutes to do absolutely nothing. Turn off your brain, and breathe. Find some time today to cry, if you can. Take a shower. Hug a person, pet, or pillow. Scream, if you feel like it. Drink water.

Now, start looking up therapists. Understand that everyone else is looking for a therapist, so you will likely not get an appointment until January at least. It may take a while simply to get a call back. Keep trying. If you can’t afford a therapist, search for community centers that offer affordable help. Look up crisis hotlines and keep their information handy, even if you don’t feel in a crisis moment right now – oftentimes their websites or phone workers can connect you to local assistance. If that doesn’t pan out, reach out to a friend or coworker. If you are a manager, CEO, or leader of any kind, make a serious effort to connect your workers to affordable mental health options. You are actively sabotaging your workforce if you are not.

One of my coworkers has a saying, “you can get through anything if you know it will end”. We have a lot more work to do once this year is over, but it will end. This pandemic, and this administration, will end. You will make it through. Keep reaching out. Keep showering, keep hugging, and most of all: keep breathing.

Nobody’s okay right now – and that’s okay.

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