Throughout the pandemic, one voice has reverberated through the corridors of my mind. My mother, a nurse for 30-plus years—who retired at the end of 2019 and then went right back to work at a COVID19 testing centre in March 2020—has always said “stress will make you sick.” She told me that when I was an anxious child chasing perfection, when I was a new mom chasing perfection and now, during the pandemic (I’ve dropped the perfectionism but still hang on to the stress).
Throughout my life, stress has almost always found a path from the internal to the external: teeth grinding, appetite loss, dizzy spells. Living under the weight of the pandemic for more than a year has been no different for me—or for nearly everyone I’ve spoken with. Here are some ways stress can present itself physically and what to expect when it finally begins to subside.
I did some informal research on Twitter by asking Canadian women what pandemic stress has done to their bodies. An overwhelming number of people chimed in about the toll it’s taken on their sleep. For many, insomnia became a constant companion. Others started finding they had a very difficult time waking up. Another common response was that their dreams (or nightmares) were extremely vivid and upsetting. Pandemic sleep disruption is so common that neurologists have actually coined a term for it: COVID-somnia.
“Almost all my clients have reported sleeping problems or sleep disturbances,” says Roxanne Francis, a psychotherapist and corporate consultant based in Ajax, Ont. “When we are faced with a stressful situation, our bodies release the hormones adrenalin and cortisol.” Adrenalin prepares our bodies for a fight-or-flight response, while cortisol helps out by reducing the bodily functions that aren’t a priority during that response. As Francis explains, when stress occurs over a prolonged period, the fight-or-flight system is always activated and these hormones are continuously released. “It becomes difficult to fall asleep, thanks to increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased energy, and poor digestion.”
Good sleep hygiene—how we prepare for sleep and create an optimal sleep environment—is critical for healthy sleep at all times, but especially during periods of stress. Journalling, doing light exercise, and limiting screen time at least one hour before bed sound like simple steps, but they can make a big difference—and they’re great habits to continue after a difficult time. Managing stress will help turn off that constant fight-or-flight response, reset your hormone levels and lead to even better sleep.
I started grinding my teeth in my sleep as a teen—my family could hear me doing it from outside my bedroom, and I woke every morning with incessant jaw pain and headaches. My dentist eventually fitted me with a (very sexy) mouthguard, but I admittedly have not kept up with wearing it. Throughout the pandemic, my teeth grinding has returned with more regularity, and I often don’t realize I’m clenching my jaw until I read one of those tweets reminding you to unclench and drink some water.
A March 2021 survey from the American Dental Association found that 70 percent of dentists saw an increase in patients dealing with teeth grinding and jaw clenching during the pandemic. For relief, the Canadian
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