Based on a webinar series she gave in August 2020, 2012 Sylff fellow Anindita Roy shares her observations on stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected people differently. Turning to the current culture of information sharing and virtual communication, Roy also touches on the importance of consuming information mindfully.
* * *
I conducted a series of workshops on responding to stress and mental well-being for a local charity at Jamshedpur, India, during the COVID-19 related countrywide lockdown. As part of the workshop, multiple online sessions were offered and were open for all. The broader theme to cover was understanding stress and coping with stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These sessions were roughly divided into learning about the stress response and developing resilience to enhance mental well-being. I would like to share through this article observations that formed part of these sessions. However, let me add at the start that the article does not present tools and tips. I am wary of making general prescriptions about stress and coping, although surely one can speak of these more generally. My biggest hope in sharing this article is one of solidarity with my extended Sylff family during these difficult times, by sharing with you another perspective of the COVID experience in another part of the globe. In times when each of us has been confined in our worlds and lives, in isolation and isolated, sometimes alone or lonely, I hope this article brings with it the hope that you are not alone and that we are in this together.
For a major part of the world’s population today, a pandemic of this scale had not formed a part of our lived experiences. Forcing us to negotiate with something we had no experience of in living memory, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo, and the world continues to strive for a “new normal” amid this crisis and beyond. At its peak, the pandemic instilled a general unease in connecting with others, forging a different culture of connection. As we continue to practice social distancing, in many cases, company is still viewed as risky and contact potentially fatal. The epidemic, the related lockdown, and its intensity have not been the same for all. The unprecedented chaos has had different effects on our lives, raising varied concerns. Within the context of the workshop too, it was observed that the pandemic influenced my participants and me very differently. It was necessary to acknowledge as well that it is not only about the pandemic but also about the people and their response to it, and that people are different too.
In an activity with the participants, I encouraged everyone to write with their body parts instead of a pen or pencil. They were requested, for example, to write letters and numbers in the air with their elbows, knees, tongue, and left hand. None of my participants in this session were differently abled, and many initially found the exercise “awkward” and “funny” as they were encouraged to keep their cameras on during this part. Although the scope of the session did not allow us to look at the theme of the body, issues of difference, and disability in great depth, the exercise offered the participants another perspective on their own abilities and the way it may be represented to themselves and others. For instance, some shared that they struggled to twist their tongues or bend their knees, while others who had imagined they could not write with their left hands did so with great ease. There was one participant who noted that their shoulder blade hurt immensely while trying to use their right elbow when making figures in the air.
In a way, this exercise offered an awareness to the participants about the others in their group but also presented the opportunity to know a little more about themselves—at least in that moment. Being on the same boat but not (quite!) in the same journey, this helped with an understanding of difference, while simultaneously offering the possibility to learn together, albeit differently from one another.
The above exercise offered a useful understanding of stress itself. Stress affects everyone, and everyone feels stressed from time to time. Yet some cope with it more effectively and recover from stressful events faster than others. When the demands placed on us in any given situation are much greater than the resources we may have (or percieve we have), we find ourselves stressed in trying to meet these demands. Stress is the call for a sense of balance in the face of a perceived imbalance. Stress is different for everyone, and no two people respond to stressors in the same way. What maybe stressful for one person may not be stressful for another, and even if it is, the response to stress and the coping mechanisms could be vastly different between individuals.
Not all stress is bad. In life-threatening situations, stress prepares the body to either fight the threat or flee from it. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can be motivating. Long-term stress, however, is straining on our body and mind, contributing to serious complications and compromising physical and mental well-being. Dealing or coping with stress can be learned and, with practice, can be implemented effectively. This does not eradicate stress in and of itself, nor does it guarantee that one will never be stressed again. However, it offers a roadmap to meander stressful situations, equipping the individual with tools to communicate with stress in productive awareness.
Awareness of symptoms helps with diagnosis. Recognizing stressors is a crucial step toward developing tools to deal with stress. My participants shared some of their stressors specific to COVID-19 and the related lockdown. Most were related to such issues as health in the face of the epidemic, achieving a work-life balance in a work-from-home environment, family conflicts from more time spent at home, difficult conversations due to death, illness, or job loss, and public speaking in meetings via Zoom calls. In going through some of these stressors, an overarching theme that came up was how the pandemic had changed the lives of the participants in different ways. Some of my participants had lost their jobs, some expressed concerns about sick family and friends, and yet others were left worried about elderly parents or children living alone at another location. On the one hand, there was the frustration of students lacking sufficient support and the ambiguity of older school goers on the verge of preparing for their career-defining examinations. On the other hand, there were teachers dealing with the additional responsibility of adapting to newer technologies for teaching and evaluation, as well as pay cuts, in some cases. Most of these stressors fed into a sense of uncertainty. Meanwhile, there were a few participants who expressed their efforts in “trying to find a silver lining” as they talked of rediscovering their long-lost hobbies, nurturing skills such as baking, pottery, poetry writing, and gardening, finding time to exercise, eating healthier, reading more, and writing journals, to name a few.
During these sessions, the participants were encouraged to reflect on how the pandemic and the related lockdown had impacted their lives in terms of perceived differences between before and after the pandemic. These helped explain to a certain degree the levels of stress brought about by sudden changes such as death, illness, and unemployment and stress related to changes in routine such as the pressures of school, work, family, and other responsibilities. The very nature of the epidemic, the ever-evolving research, government guidelines and containment measures, death tolls, major gaps from unequal access to a variety of resources, ranging from healthcare to education to support services, etc, and related information—these all added to the atmosphere of dealing with an unknown future, the uncertainty of not knowing, or the inability to accurately predict some semblance of a known “normal.” (Dare I mention the minefield of mis/disinformation further adding to the confusion?)
My participants and I wondered if we could structure some sense of certainty in the face of unprecedented changes, and how. The idea of this attempt was not to judge whether the glass is half full or half empty but to give back to the participants the power to refill the glass, even amid the crisis. A sense of the familiar in the face of overwhelming change somehow offers a sense of control or of taking back some control. My participants and I discussed forming a routine that suited them and how having one was helpful to combat uncertainty by establishing some predictability. One way to do this is goal setting, preferably setting small achievable chunks as part of formulating one’s routine. This not only helps to get organized but also brings back a sense of certainty and control by helping the individual to lean into things that one can change within their routine. This is also a good way of attaining motivation. Nonetheless, this also extended to the disclaimer that one must not blindly borrow someone else’s routine, specifically out of the “fear of missing out.”
Within the ambience of “influencers,” information overload, and frequent “forwards,” “likes,” “comments,”and “subscribes,” the consumption and sharing of information is undeniably important to one’s overall well-being. Another stressor, broadly relevant to the contemporary age of newer technologies and the present culture of virtual communication, is FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” FOMO was a significant stressor for some of my participants during the lockdown. For instance, it was distressing for a participant how a friend had lost weight while they had piled on multiple kilograms during the lockdown. They had found creative expression through online platforms and were unhappy with the number of “likes” they had on their pictures and profile. Their friend had been following a certain diet and achieved a significant “transformation,” along with more subscribers, likes, and views from the pictures shared since the “transformation,” or so thought this participant. The latter was extremely eager to go on the new diet and transform themselves too in the lockdown. They did not initially feel the need to consult a nutritionist and said that all the information about the diet was available for free online. My personal hesitation about the diet is that it leaves out an entire food group, but my participant did not want to lose out on the benefits—benefits they thought their friend had gained from following this certain diet.
I would like to end this article with a brief take on “infobesity,” or information overload, another stressor in the lockdown. Information today is widely available and often easily accessible at the click of a button (at least to many sections across society, if not everywhere). However, when there is too much information, there is also the possibility of mis/disinformation. This was briefly discussed in the context of the pandemic in one of my sessions. At the risk of repeating what my researcher colleagues may already know, here are some ways to challenge information abuse (and also help with information overload):
The COVID-19 lockdown saw instances of information abuse in the form of inaccurate information and fake news. Although not typical to the pandemic and its related lockdown, information abuse should be challenged, and one can do so only if one is mindful of their information consumption. Information is useful. Information about COVID-19, local guidelines, helpline numbers, food banks, and now vaccines is significant and potentially life saving. Information is power, and I take this opportunity to remind us of the power we have and of the choices we can continue to make even in crisis, and beyond.
General sessions open for the public can be viewed at: