White Coat Black Art·The Dose

How has the stress from a difficult year changed your brain and what can you do about it?

Stress changes your brain and has physical, mental and cognitive side effects. Many Canadians report drastically increased stress rates during the pandemic. Psychology professor Leslie Roos joins Dr. Brian Goldman to share proven, evidence based strategies for managing stress and feeling better.

Do you have COVID stress syndrome? Psychology expert offers 5 strategies for managing stress

Canadians have seen their stress levels increase since the onset of the pandemic, and experts worry there could be long-term health consequences as a result. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Canadian stress levels have risen to worrisome new levels during the pandemic, according to experts.

Job loss, financial insecurity, fear of catching COVID-19, sickness, isolation, the death of loved ones can add up to a toxic mental health mix, according to Leslie Roos, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba and an affiliated researcher with the Children's Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. 

Leslie Roos is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba and uses an approach called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy to help patients manage stress. (Submitted by Leslie Roos)

A Nanos Research poll, conducted in April on behalf of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, found that many people in Canada have seen their stress levels double since the onset of the pandemic.

Stress can be damaging to our physical and mental health, but there are proven strategies to help you cope, according to Roos.

"The physiological response [to stress] is actually a whole body response," she told The Dose and White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman.

In the short-term term, stress can play a positive role, said Roos, but continuous stress — like what many are experiencing during the pandemic — can lead to a cascade of symptoms including increased pain, stomach aches and sleep disruption.

In the long term, that "can create inflammation and really wear and tear on bodily systems," she said.

Roos uses Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) in her clinical practice but you can apply its strategies on your own and it's accessible to anyone, she says. DBT was developed in the 1970s to treat borderline personality disorder and was later adapted to help people with stress and anxiety.

It's a therapy method focused on "accepting that we're in a really tough situation right now" as a precursor to positive change, she told Goldman.

"And also realizing that if we want our 2021 to be better, we're probably going to have to change some of the behaviours that we're doing that might be contributing to mental health problems," like sitting on the couch too much or not making an effort to connect socially, she said.

The pandemic has added to stress levels for many Canadians, including those who are working from home and managing online schooling for kids. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Strategies for managing stress

Roos says that according to DBT, there are four options when faced with a stressful situation:

  • Solve the problem: Obviously this is hard to do with the pandemic, but Roos says it's still worth asking yourself: is there a solution to the problem in front of you?

  • Feel better about the problem: Actively choose to accept your difficult circumstances and "do whatever needs to be done day-to-day to get through with a really positive attitude."

  • Tolerate the problem: Accept that you feel frustrated but do nothing.

  • Stay miserable (or make it worse): You could lean into grumpiness and don't change anything at all.

Leaning into grumpiness might be something "most people can relate to in the past year," Roos said.

"It naturally comes up when we feel a little bit hopeless about the current situation."

Roos says there are five strategies that can help you shift your mindset. "A lot of these pieces include choosing to be willing to do exactly what's needed in the moment to get through," she explained.

  1. Catch yourself when your mind is stuck in "negative loops": Do something to pull yourself back into the present moment like listening to a loud song or take a hot shower.

  2. Plan ahead for positive activities: Plan something social, like going for a walk or a Zoom date with a friend. Social support is "the secret sauce to countering the stress response," Roos said.

  3. Notice when your emotion doesn't match the problem, and do the opposite: For example, if you get angry at your roommate for not washing the dishes, even though you know they've had a tough day, think of all the things you appreciate about them and do something nice for them instead.

  4. Communicate your needs to friends and family: Let other people know when you're having a hard time, how that makes you feel and what you need from them.

  5. Radical acceptance: Accept your circumstances. It doesn't mean you're happy about them, "but it means that you're choosing to seek out the best life you can have right now," said Roos.

Covid Stress Syndrome

If you're not sure how stress is impacting your life during the pandemic, Canadian researchers have come up with the COVID stress scales to help.

Steven Taylor is a professor at the University of British Columbia's Department of Psychiatry and author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. (Submitted by Steven Taylor)

Clinical psychologist Steven Taylor is one of the co-directors of the Psychology of Pandemics Network and helped develop the scales.

He explained that they comprise five responses to the pandemic — fear of catching COVID-19, socioeconomic concerns, xenophobia, compulsive checking of news and statistics, and traumatic stress — that can add up to what he calls COVID stress syndrome. 

Anyone can take an online assessment tool to figure out how many of these criteria they meet.

In its severe forms, this syndrome could be called a stress disorder. Taylor and his colleagues found roughly 13 per cent of people surveyed — adults from Canada and the United States — met criteria for this disorder, meaning they had trouble functioning in their daily lives.

(Psychology of Pandemics Network, University of Regina & Canadian Institutes of Health Research)

"We're going to have a mental health crisis coming up," said Taylor, who is also a professor at the University of British Columbia's Department of Psychiatry and author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease.

He added that if you find that you're high on the stress scale, and strategies like exercise or mindfulness or those outlined by Roos don't work, it's a good idea to see a family doctor and get a referral to a mental health professional.

The good news? "We're expecting when the pandemic is over, the majority of people will return to baseline," said Taylor.

Be gentle on yourself

In the meantime, Leslie Roos has some final advice: Be gentle on yourself and others. 

Roos says being gentle on yourself and others is critical to managing pandemic stress. (Submitted by Leslie Roos)

No stranger to stress, Roos has two young kids at home on top of her work. 

"There will come a time when we can do awesome sports and get out and about more. But these days, you know, especially when we're having these bouts of -20 degree weather in Winnipeg, it's okay if we watch two movies in one day on the weekend when we're all really tired," she said.