post pandemic stress

While some countries are still facing rising numbers of Covid-19 infections, including at time of writing India and a number of other southern and south-east Asian countries, some other countries, and particularly those with earlier and more comprehensive vaccination programs, are now beginning to open up and loosen restrictions. 

Of course for most of us the prospect of living more normally, with fewer restrictions is a good thing, with more freedom to do what we want to do, less concern that either us or our family, friends or colleagues might become seriously ill; and in most cases greater opportunity with less likelihood of us losing our jobs and a greater likelihood of finding new ones if the pandemic led to loss of employment.

However, against what we would perhaps predict, many of us might also be experiencing some feelings of anxiety and apprehension too about the end of lockdown and restrictions, and it’s worth taking a look at some of things we know about stress to help us understand why this might be the case.

The inventor of stress, or more appropriately the person who has come to be regarded as the first person to recognize and connect the various physical and psychological symptoms that today are recognized as stress, was the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye, whose research in the 1940s led him to propose a condition called “general adaptive disorder“, later renamed to “stress response“. For Selye, as an endocrinologist, this research was founded in the study of the body’s chemical and hormonal responses to stressors.

In general adaptive disorder there are four possible phases of which the first two are always the same, alarm and resistance, then the third can be one of two different possibilities, exhaustion or recovery. (1)

The first, the alarm phase, itself consists of two sub-phases known as shock and anti-shock comprising the immediate response to an alarming stimuli or stressor, and it corresponds closely with the flight, fight or freeze effects that we are all familiar with when something bad and unexpected occurs.

A resistance phase is then when the body and mind essentially push back against the stressor, including the use of various chemicals and hormones as part of an attempt to find a way to manage or cope with it. This could also include social behavioural responses to adapt or change our situation.

After resistance, and if the stressor persists, there is then either an exhaustion phase where the the body has used up its resources and the person over time succumbs to the stressor; or if on the other hand an appropriate coping mechanism has been found or if the stressor lessen, there will be a recovery phase where the body returns to normal or adapts to type of new normal.

General adaptive disorder is relevant to to our experiences of coming in and out of the pandemic and the possibility of post pandemic stress, on the basis that in response to pandemic stressors, including concerns about health, prosperity and social restrictions, most of us will have gone through periods of alarm and resistance at first, particularly if we live in areas where there have been higher levels of infection, and / or restrictive measures put in place that have lead to more substantial changes in our behaviour, and / or in situations where there may have been a direct threat to our lives or livelihoods.

However, now more than one year on many of us will have adapted and moved into a “new normal” type of situation, with new professional, social and behavioural ways of doing things. By  now these are going to be quite embedded and habitual and so the prospect of giving them up and changing again may cause us feelings of alarm and resistance, particularly in cases where there is uncertainty about when exactly this is going to happen or whether things will (or can) go back to normal.

For those of us who have not adapted or recovered very well, even if there is a strong underlying desire to get back to normal, our psychological, social and potentially even in some cases – where access to exercise has been limited – physical resources to cope with this new change will be significantly weakened, making it more challenging to actually contemplate further change. Those that need change the most may find it the hardest to actually do.

An interesting parallel to this are situations where people find themselves spending periods of time in unfamiliar conditions, for  soldiers going on operational tours or people being sent to prison. In these cases too there is a period of initial stress is followed by resistance then often recovery and adapation, and so as the soldier or prisoner reaches the end of their tour or their sentence, a new heightened sense of stress can arise as they anticipate and undergo another change back into “normal” life again.

So for all the benefits that the end of the pandemic and restrictions are going to bring us, as we look at ourselves, our families, friends and colleagues, just as we might plan and do our best to take measures to prepare for something stressful that we know about – like an interview, new business project, medical operation or marathon – it is also worth thinking about what measures we might be able to take to reduce the alarm and improve our recovery and adapation to whatever comes next for all of us, whether that is a true return to how things were before the pandemic or perhaps, and more hopefully, a new normal blending the best  bits of new and old.


(1) Selye had three phases: alarm, recovery and exhaustion. The addition of the recovery phase is based on the idea that the stressor may cease or we may find ways to cope with the stressors which will also remove it or its effects.  Research since Selye has shown the process of responding to stressors is more complex than he conceptualised, but as a model and explanation for why we may experience post-pandemic stress it is interesting and potentially helpful.