Could Sheltering in Place Be Lowering Our Stress?

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Where Have All the Heart Attacks Gone? asks a New York Times story. Fewer people are showing up in U.S. emergency rooms with cardiac issue and strokes. Same in Spain. What’s going on?

Perhaps people just don’t want to go to the emergency room, but — and this is anecdotal, of course — a friend tells me that his mother’s high blood pressure disappeared since she began sheltering in place. Maybe decreased air pollution is helping, or some other “second-order” effect of the pandemic.

Here’s the most fascinating possibility — perhaps the net effect of sheltering in place, despite all of our new stresses — job losses, restricted movement, uncertainty about the future, etc. — is a reduction in stress reactions, lowering our levels of adrenaline, cortisol and other “stress hormones,” because our new way of life is activating our recovery reactions.

As I’ve researched my upcoming book, Stress Into Strength (HarperCollins Leadership, 2021), I’ve given quite a bit of attention to how disconnected our culture has become, especially during the last 50 years. We are disconnected physically, from our bodies and nature. We are disconnected socially, from each other. We are disconnected spiritually, from traditional sources of values and meaning that transcend self-interest. The pandemic may be helping, even forcing, us to invest more time and energy in activities that calm our stress reactions by triggering our natural recovery and growth reactions.

  • If we are eating better, getting more sleep, and exercising more, especially in nature, that’s helping us re-connect physically, spending less energy on “fight or flight” and more on our “rest and digest” recovery reaction.
  • If we are spending more time “being real” with those we are closest to, that’s social re-connection, spending less energy on “defending and distancing” and more in “tending and befriending.”
  • If we are taking time to re-examine our priorities and values, that’s helping us re-connect spiritually, spending less energy on “selfish and survivalist” behaviors and more on “pause and plan,” our spiritual recovery response.

The central theme of Stress Into Strength, summarized in chapter two of my latest book, Resilience During the Pandemic, is that when we combine these stress and recovery reactions, in the right amounts, at the right intervals, we grow stronger. Anybody who lifts weights understands that strength and resilience come from getting the right amount of stress (lifting the weights) and recovery (rest, sleep, and protein) at the right intervals. In fact, keeping stress and recovery in balance is the only way to grow stronger.

Our stress reactions are automatic, but we need to be more deliberate about activating our recovery reactions. It seems clear that the pandemic is at least creating opportunities, if not the obligation, to get stress and recovery into better balance.