September 29, 2023

It’s been a long decade this 2020.

The year started with two funerals for friends’ parents lost, and it’s ended with the passing of two friends, one to COVID-19 and the other to pancreatic cancer. There have been new cancer diagnoses this year, unending COVID-19 battles and a deadly car wreck that injured my wife. To say that it’s been a tough year would be an understatement.

To say that it’s been a frustrating year would be, too.

This was a political year, and nowhere has that been more maddening than the mind-boggling proliferation of anti-science sentiment. The unfollow button on Facebook has gotten a tremendous workout in 2020, and I think that’s very healthy. The echo chamber can be a problem; it can also be a tactic for sane living.

The stress that comes with loss and suffering, fear and concern has a major impact on mental and physical well-being. But even if you’ve managed to not be impacted directly by COVID-19, the loss of a productive year or even all the fun you would normally have had is something you’re likely grieving.

We’re all grieving 2020.

Alas, I write this to spread a simple message of truth: You are dealing with chronic stress. In a normal year, it could be said that everybody is dealing with something. In 2020, it’s chronic stress. The only question is how severe the chronic stress is, and how you can help yourself or others manage it.

In small doses, stress can produce positive results like knowing how to survive, fight or flight. You can run from the bear or be eaten. (I wouldn’t advise trying to fight it.) Over the long-term, stress can cause a wide variety of physical ailments such as headaches, heartburn, insomnia, belly aches, chronic fatigue and a higher risk of ailments that would add to that stress, including heart attack and diabetes.

The first challenge is to recognize and acknowledge chronic stress as a problem. Doing so takes away some of the power from it, but it also gets you on course for fighting it. You don’t think to make an appointment with the mechanic until you see the ‘check engine’ light.

For me, the ‘check engine’ light came on after the passing of my News 9 colleague Greg Blackwood, 57, who died from pancreatic cancer Dec. 13. His death came two weeks after my long-time friend Saad Qubain, 49, died from COVID-19, on Thanksgiving. Back to back, these events were a lot, compounded by the fact that these men were so, so alike in their positivity and goodness. Their passing brings sadness, but the unfairness of it especially in light of their relative youth is angering. It can also bring a sense of futility or fright in knowing that the same can happen to any of us, at any age, in any year.

Imagine how much worse this stress is for close family and friends. In 2020, I know of at least a dozen friends who have lost parents, siblings and spouses. And in the age of COVID-19, any of us over the age of 50 is a big viral load away from a ventilator.

The stress caused by health anxiety, either for yourself or on behalf of loved ones, is a thing.

The stress caused by the economic impacts of COVID-19 is a thing.

The stress caused by the recent presidential election is a thing.

So, how did I know the ‘check engine’ light came on for me? The best way I could describe it is in feeling extraordinary tension everywhere, combined with a slight ache in the belly and a knot in the chest and this overarching sense of doom. I don’t think it all-of-a-sudden happened either. I think it’s been building up over 2020, especially the last half of it. Traumatic life events trigger the stress response in the body.

For you it may feel different, but unless you’ve lived in a bubble all year, you’re dealing with chronic stress. I don’t think there’s even a question.

And I don’t mention this to virtue-signal. I do this for the same reason I wear a mask and for the same reason why I will absolutely, without hesitation get a COVID-19 vaccine when the time comes. I’m setting a good example, and hoping that my example helps others.

The first step in fighting chronic stress is to acknowledge it. I told my wife last Sunday that for the first time all year, in this most stressful of stressful years, that it had started to feel overwhelming. I work in news; believe me when I tell you that I can handle a lot, and so can most newsies. Combined with my Virgo introversion, getting me to even say the words is a big, big deal.

But saying it out loud robs the demon of so much of its power.

The moment I said it out loud, I realized I was on my way to managing it because I’m confident that I can. Chronic stress has to be managed. Ignoring it can result in a wide variety of ailments that are above my scientific pay-grade. It can also result in suboptimal behaviors such as lashing out at or being hurtful to others. In that way, to manage one’s chronic stress is to be a thoughtful human.

In the near future, I’m going to write about some techniques I’m developing for curbing my own stress. I’ve already got one idea I’m working on. I call it the ‘No Day.’ The ‘No Day’ is different from a Sabbath in that I don’t commit to doing nothing. It’s also not religious in nature. It will likely involve Internet rabbit holes, sports, running now that my back is finally getting better, catching up on books and news and TV shows — really self-indulgent fun. It might also include long brunches with my wife or afternoons on the couch binging something on TV.

I get it. This is what normal humans call “Sunday.”

You’ve got to do what works for you.

But the first thing you have to do is to acknowledge that your stress problem is bigger than you think. You’re not just stressed. You’re overwhelmed.

If you say you’re not, at the end of 2020, I’d simply suggest that you’re in denial. And in trouble. Because chronic stress at the level we’ve experienced it this year is a big deal.

Cover photo courtesy: Carl Wycoff

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