Chaos, Cortisol and “Crisis Fatigue”

On my weekly trip to the grocery store (during Sunrise Senior Hours, of course), I sensed a change in folks’ demeanor.  Many people had a defeated, hang-dog look on their masked faces.

I thought it might just be me projecting my feelings onto them, but when I got home, I spotted an article in WIRED titled “All This Chaos Might Be Giving You ‘Crisis Fatigue”.

The punch line: Your body is well adapted to handle temporary stresses, but it may be overwhelmed by the constant, unrelenting pressures we’re all currently facing.


Here’s the essence of the article…


The Biochemistry of Cortisol

When you’re faced with a threat, the adrenal glands perched atop your kidneys flood your body with the stress hormone cortisol (which amps up your metabolism and fights inflammation) and adrenaline (which speeds up your blood circulation and breathing).

This is the biochemistry of your fight-or-flight response—it helps you either flee danger or stand your ground and brawl.

The cortisol effect can be overwhelming at times.

Psychologists call it “crisis fatigue”…


Crisis Fatigue

Your body is well adapted to handle temporary stresses, but it can get overwhelmed by constant, unrelenting pressures.

With social media and cable news, we’re constantly bombarded with doom and gloom … the layering, or sedimentation, of crises upon crises upon crises.

There’s a reason why your body is prepared to ride out a high-stress, highly fearful state of affairs for a short time — when you’re super alert, you’re better able to detect and evade threats.

But over the course of weeks, high cortisol levels wreak havoc on the body, resulting in problems like anxiety, depression, insomnia, weight gain, high blood pressure, digestive problems  and relationship distress.


Chaos & Uncertainty

Much of our current stress comes from Covid-19 uncertainty:

  • Will I get Covid-19?
  • If I do, will I be asymptomatic or end up in the emergency room?
  • Will I inadvertently pass it to my grandparents?
  • How long will the outbreak last?

None of us has lived through a pandemic like this, and none of us is equipped with the knowledge to weather it safely.

“It’s a wholly different type of crisis, and it just fatigues us in ways that we’re not as used to.”

“This disaster has some uniqueness in that the uncertainty is about some more fundamental things. It is lasting longer than it typically does in many disasters, and it is affecting far more people than other sort of, say, climate-related disasters would affect.”

Bottom line: Today’s pressures are exactly the kinds that flood everyone’s system with cortisol and adrenaline, and they’re likely to keep amping up people’s levels of burnout.


So, what to do?

According to the Mayo Clinic …

Stressful events are facts of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you.

You can learn to identify what stresses you and how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in the face of stressful situations.

Stress management strategies include:

  • Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep
  • Practicing relaxation techniques such as trying yoga, practicing deep breathing, getting a massage or learning to meditate
  • Moderating exposure to unsettling stimuli, e.g. social media, TV
  • Taking time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
  • Fostering healthy friendships

The reward for learning to manage stress is peace of mind and perhaps a longer, healthier life.

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