Editor’s Note: Ford Vox is a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine and a journalist who frequently contributes to CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @FordVox. The opinions expressed in this comment belong to the author. See more opinion at CNNE.com/opinion.
. – Death awaits us all, preceded by a catastrophe or two on the way for many of us. Close calls can highlight the fragility of our lives, making our daily existence even more meaningful. But this strenuous work in a pandemic strains the limits of normal resistance. And allowing anxiety to peak can have serious health consequences.
The new coronavirus pandemic may make it seem impossible to look away from the storm on the horizon. And what kind of monster: The first wave of Covid-19 is turning into a tsunami that threatens a growing number of states.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, says we could hit 100,000 cases a day across the country. Under these circumstances, increased stress levels are inevitable. Covid-19 has already “infected” our minds, whether it enters our bodies or not. Now is the time to work methodically on treating the pandemic brain.
The onslaught of critical cases of covid-19 in our hospitals is, of course, the biggest problem facing the nation. But for many people with no trace of the virus in their bodies, pandemic stress reactions are also tipping the balance toward medical catastrophe.
I am a physician dealing exclusively with the world of life-changing injuries, working at a large Atlanta hospital that treats patients from across the Southeast US and beyond.
It is not uncommon for news headlines to soon reflect the people who walk through our doors, whether it be madness with a scooter causing head injuries, or the victims of a mass shooting or indeed an infectious disease of rapid spread. But it takes a global event like this to accomplish such a collection of stress-related consequences at a particular hospital or doctor in particular.
I am used to having patients report particularly stressful events that occur at the time of heart attacks or strokes that put them in my care. We know that there is a clear link between stress, anxiety, and your cardiovascular health. Now they report business closings.
I am seeing that anxiety managed with alcohol or drugs turns into cardiac arrest. I also see a delay in medical care with disabling consequences and reckless behaviors (another unhealthy response to stress) resulting in life-altering injuries.
For every person whose stress rises to the level of having a heart attack or stroke, there are far more people who simply experience a barely noticeable sustained increase in blood pressure or a small increase in inflammatory biomarkers circulating in the bloodstream. . Over time, there may be consequences.
I can’t imagine a set of past life experiences that can fully inoculate one of concern. In any given week, I see families through the twilight states of unconsciousness and semi-consciousness of a loved one, making it easy to deliberate on when to move forward and when it may be time to let go.
After being saturated with such problems on a daily basis for a decade, I could assume that a global pandemic could not shake my psyche on the path of life or fear of death. You would be wrong. Neither of us was ready for this.
Anxiety is natural, but keeping your brain constantly connected to a smartphone, a portable conduit for all the world’s problems, is decidedly unnatural. The “doomscrolling”, staying watching the screens for others, makes the anxieties of 2020 are synthetically supercharged.
Even with wearing masks and avoiding crowds, it is not entirely under our control to contract covid-19. Certainly, it is not up to us how we will fare when it takes hold.
But we have a level of control over how we react to this new reality, where we direct our attention and for how long, and how we deliberately manage our moments. Of course, it doesn’t help that, as anxiety and depression are increasing, getting professional help is more difficult than ever. (Although the National Suicide Prevention Line is always available to connect people to the care they need. If you need this service, call 1-800-273-8255.)
Now don’t get me wrong, just because you care about the covid-19 doesn’t mean you have a stroke around the corner. The underlying risk factors are generally required to see stress translate into a major cardiovascular event. At the same time, many adults have some risk factors, often unknown to them.
Situational factors, for example, the events of a pandemic or world war, will often be at play in determining whether a particular person’s stroke or heart attack occurs on a given day compared to another. And we are seeing many more of these health incidents now due to the pandemic.
Data analysts at the Washington Post analyzed more than three months of pandemic data from 5 states to determine that there were 8,300 more cardiovascular-related deaths than expected in those states.
The deaths are not from covid-19 directly, but many were likely due to delayed care, and perhaps in some cases, were the result of pandemic stress, similar to my own clinical observations.
Last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association also published data analysis that suggests covid-19 death counts significantly underestimate the actual number of pandemic-related deaths through health impacts like these.
For every death related to pandemic stress, there are many more survivors with near-death experiences, such as the patients I treat.
No doctor can prescribe that your business will quickly go through what is happening, or that you will not lose your insurance or be the victim of many other factors that make lives go crazy right now. I can’t tell him to make sure that no one in his family ends up in the hospital for weeks, apart and suffering.
Still, there are a few things we can do to try to maintain our physical and mental well-being while accepting that no, everything is not right. Doing what we can to control our personal reactions to pandemic stress, while accepting more than we cannot change, will be a key to our survival.
The treatment you would prescribe requires conscious disconnection, then elective reconnection to what is really important in your life. Manage adverse events in a realistic way. Let the rest go overboard. Go hard data for a day. Build from there.
As everything moves online – our working, social lives, and more of our basic services, including our healthcare – this may seem like an impossible goal. Use some of the increasingly varied tools to help you cut down on screen time and protect all the time without a screen that you can take advantage of from your days and weeks.
I am trying to keep the recipe myself, increasingly disconnected for much of the day on weekends and hoping to continue.
Does it sound trite to recommend a hobby too? Doesn’t it sound a little disappointing to recommend exercise and a heart-healthy diet, especially after a heart attack?
The treatment works, no matter how technological it is. The same exercise and diet that can help your heart can also help calm your pandemic brain.
Manage your consumption of the evil 2020 political scene in the same way that you try to limit your dessert consumption. We cannot move away from our democracy at these critical moments. But they do participate judiciously. I teach families that they have to take time and take care of themselves to take care of their loved one. The same can be said when taking care of our problematic democracy.
It is appropriate to sadden the world and the innocence we have lost. And we should not underestimate the lasting effects of this stress on our health. The ripple effects here are not a mere “butterfly effect”. The pandemic is more of a hippo load effect. Intentionally dealing with and handling the unfortunate reality, while dodging the hippopotamus as best we can, became part of every adult’s job description.
The issue now is survival, but in reality, that has always been the case. The ways we interact and how we do business are changing, largely in the long run. But life has always been subject to change. A certain degree of acceptance of these facts, if you can put them together, will help lessen your anxiety.
Puzzles, painting, hiking, kayaking, adopting a dog, games with friends online – find what works to take your eyes off the storm on the horizon. For those who can afford camping trips and are growing RV sales across the country, that’s a great answer. Same thing with home exercise equipment, as long as you use it! You must be deliberate when adding new social and physical routines to your weekly mix.
What kept you healthy in 2019 won’t be good enough for the rest of 2020. So maybe add a little meditation or try mindfulness exercises. I am not a practitioner, but I agree that it sounds like a good idea (I prefer to work in the garden). Whatever new activities you choose, be prepared and willing to change. Change is the only thing we can count on.