Auburn expert explains the ‘spillover effect’ of COVID-19 stress

Charlotte Tuggle | Communications Editor

Lauren Ruhlman headshot

HDFS Assistant Professor, Lauren Ruhlman

As children return to school, parents return to work and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the safety of our loved ones, our bodies operate under increased, continuous levels of stress. Lauren Ruhlmann, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences in the College of Human Sciences, explains how COVID-19 stress is received by our mind and body, and what we can do to manage it.

Explain the 'spillover effect' and how it relates to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. How might it present itself physically and mentally? What are the signs that stress is taking a toll on us in an unhealthy way?
Stress is our mind-body system mobilizing the energy needed to respond to an adjustment, challenge, or threat (ACT). It doesn’t matter whether we view the ACT as good (e.g., getting married, starting a new job, having a baby) or bad (e.g., having your car break down, getting behind at work, losing a loved one), the stress-response system that is activated in our bodies is the same. This stress-response system gives us the energy we need to respond to the ACT, and then, once it has passed, our stress-response systems dial down and we go back to normal – or baseline. However, in situations of chronic or prolonged stress, our stress-response system doesn’t shut down, which means our minds and bodies don’t have a chance to fully recover from the increased energy demand. We know from decades of research that the amount of stress we can handle at any given time is limited, and that once we exceed this threshold our mind-body system can become dysregulated and “burn out.” You can think of this like the power supply to your house. The ACT of turning on a light or plugging in an appliance requires a certain amount of power – or energy. Your home’s power supply has enough energy to support a few lights and appliances at a time. However, when you don’t give your system a break by turning off some appliances before activating others, your circuit breaker “trips” and automatically shuts down because it cannot handle the excess demand. Many people are facing new and unprecedented levels of stress in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of stressors that preceded the pandemic, many individuals are now also facing increased risks to their health, or the health of loved ones, anxiety about the future, financial hardships, loneliness, relationship conflict, loss of access to healthy coping mechanisms like exercise, and new challenges like stepping into the role of their child’s teacher, among many others. As this stress adds up, it can overload our limited energy supplies, which has negative spillover effects on our physical, mental, and relational health.

Signs that stress may have depleted our energy supply vary from person-to-person, but some common examples include headaches, nausea, body aches, racing heart, difficulty concentrating or “zoning out” more frequently than usual, insomnia, chronic fatigue despite getting a full night’s sleep, increased substance use, feeling depressed or anxious, and being uncharacteristically irritated or withdrawn, among many others. Some more subtle indicators could be spending more time than usual on social media or watching TV, increased procrastination, spending sprees, and irregular sleep-wake patterns, among many others.

What are some simple things one could do each day to manage their stress level?
The good news is that we are incredibly resilient, and research shows that there are small things we can do each day to help our body have the energy it needs to respond to stress. Some evidence-based examples include investing in our interpersonal relationships and building strong social bonds (e.g., having online dinner dates with family members, going on physically distant walks with friends, writing letters, doing a family game night, etc.); developing and sticking to a daily routine in which we go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day; getting seven to eight hours a sleep each night; exercising four days a week, varying from 30-minutes to an hour; integrating a mindfulness or meditation practice into our daily routine (there are free apps and websites that offer these tools); and writing in a gratitude journal. These are just a few examples, but there are many other strategies that could be helpful – the trick is finding the tools that work best for you because what helps one person may not be as useful to someone else.

How could teletherapy help? What does a session look like?
Going back to the analogy about your home’s power supply – when a circuit breaker trips, this is something you can often fix easily and on your own. However, if you are losing power over and over again, it can be helpful to consult with someone who is a specialized electrician. Talking to a therapist about your stress is like talking to an electrician about a problem with the power supply in your home. Teletherapy sessions are identical to face-to-face therapy sessions, except, instead of in person, you're on a two-way video call. The paperwork, intake, and video call procedures will vary from clinic to clinic, but the actual process of talking with a therapist about your stress and identifying strategies to help, is the same.

For more information on Auburn’s teletherapy program and to schedule an appointment, visit the Marriage & Family Therapy website.