COVID-19 and the Psychology of Stress: Q&A with Professor Bill Hudenko

by Caris White | 5/6/20 2:20am

Despite having hours of alone time and access to a seemingly endless stream of inspirational posts about self-improvement in quarantine, I’ve found myself more stressed than ever. And as it turns out, I’m not alone. Anxiety levels have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and college students –– an already stress-prone population –– are no exception to this phenomenon. This week, I sat down with psychological and brain sciences professor Bill Hudenko to learn more about stress induced by the pandemic and its impact on students. 

Can you explain some of the basic science behind stress?

BH: There are many definitions of stress, but one of the ones I like the most is that stress is an organism’s response to change. As a very broad definition, any organism that is required to change their behavior in any way is stressed. The more you are required to change, the more stressful that becomes. If humans are exposed to something new and we have to adapt to it, our body and our mind will respond accordingly to prepare us. In our current COVID-19 environment, there’s a tremendous amount of change for everyone. Consequently, it means that many people are under increased stress relative to their prior functioning.

What are some of the key distinctions between long and short-term stress, and how does this relate to stress caused by the pandemic?

BH: Short-term stress is in response to some kind of change. That change could be small or large, but you’ll have a physiological response, which will cause an increase in cortisol throughout your body to help you adapt to that change. At the point at which a stressor becomes extreme, it might even pivot over to trauma. Trauma is something where your coping resources are outstripped relative to the stressor that you’re experiencing.

In short term stress, this is ephemeral –– it changes quickly. We adapt to the stress, we then have a reduction in our stress response and we return back to homeostasis. Chronic stress is where we’re continually trying to adapt to a situation that hasn’t resolved or a change where we can’t quite adapt to the new circumstances. COVID-19 represents a chronic stressor because it’s a situation that doesn’t seem to have an end, and it’s rapidly evolving which means that we are continually needing to physiologically and psychologically adapt. 

Now, we do know that chronic stress is particularly problematic for humans and other organisms, and it can lead to a number of health concerns. When an organism is under constant stress, it takes a toll both physically and psychologically. This is why it’s a very important time to make sure that we’re using coping methods and reducing our stress. 

Looking at the lives of students specifically, how might we see the academic and psychological effects of this stress?

BH: What we’re seeing overall is significantly increased stress and significantly increased anxiety across the board. I think for students, it’s a very difficult time. In one sense, you have the stress that everyone is experiencing around the economy, uncertainties, future opportunities and employment. I think students have some unique stressors around things like curtailed relationships that they have been building with people in-person. 

For example, my heart really goes out to seniors. In college, they have had expectations around graduation and their final term, about what that period would look like and how it will launch them into the next phase of their lives. For many students, that has been taken away in a way that also adds a grieving component to those stresses. There’s a feeling of sadness, missed opportunity and loss that adds onto anxiety about the future.

Are there effective ways to manage stress in quarantine?

BH: There’s all sorts of things that we know about the science of stress and anxiety that are helpful to people. I would start by saying, find the parts of life that are stable. Things that aren’t out of control can help you feel more in control of other areas that are less stable. Another factor that we know is very helpful is social networks. Finding ways to be connected with other people is a very healthy way to deal with stress. 

We also know that catharsis can be very helpful. Talking with your family and friends and expressing the sadness and anxiety you are feeling can help reduce the experience. Physical exercise is a really great thing. The endorphins that are produced and the challenge associated with it are great for your mind. 

As a last factor, try to keep a focus on hope. While this feels like a chronic stressor, this is hopefully a limited time in our lives, and finding silver linings gives us that sense of control again. Especially for anxiety, there are a lot of physiological techniques that can be helpful. Things like mindfulness –– focusing on where you are in the present instead of the future or the past –– can be very helpful during these times. 

How can we use this moment as a turning point in our approach to mental health?

BH: One of the main things I hope to accomplish with my career is to transform the delivery of mental health care. Two of the biggest problems we experience are cost and access to care. Basically put, there are far fewer mental health clinicians than we need to deal with [current demands]. In 2019, I set about creating a new company around the concept of using messaging-based intervention as a cornerstone of mental health treatment. Since that time, and in particular since COVID-19, we’ve had this tremendous explosion in our services. 

I think that we are now at the dawn of an era where we have an opportunity to completely rethink how we do mental health services. While COVID-19 is such a challenging thing for all of us, perhaps the silver lining is that this might be a catalyst to a new method of intervention that people will try and find to be very effective.

One of the statements we hear a lot these days is that “we’re all in this together.” I do think we should recognize that isolation is challenging for people. It’s an important time to remember that we need to be connected and that [being together is] healthy for us.