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Stressing Out: How It Affects Relationships and 10 Things to Do about It

We all deal with so-called acute stresses all the time—these are the stresses that aggravate us and may even keep us up at night, but that go away or at least dissipate over time.

Even tragic losses—being dumped a partner, losing a partner to an illness, suffering bankruptcy, becoming ill oneself—usually have a fairly clearly demarcated beginning and, eventually, an ending at which point they are more memories than current concerns.  Their effects are temporary and usually reversible.

Some of us, who are unlucky, have, over time, gotten to deal with chronic stresses—cancer that at best goes into remission, an unhappy marriage that goes on and on, a heart condition, poverty, unending war, unbreathable air.

Today, we are living in an historically unusual period in which many, if not most of us are being subject to what has seemed to become a chronic stressor—COVID-19 and the disasters that have come along with it, such as ill health, unemployment, the curtailing of our social lives, our inability to travel even to see loved ones, and so forth.

Many of us are finding ourselves ill-equipped to cope.  Some are rebelling at the restrictions that a pandemic places on our lives, only then to find not an escape from stress but even worse stress when they become ill or infect others.

Stress can have positive effects on relationships, but usually only if we have the resources to cope with the stressors.  For example, if you inherited a bundle, maybe you can survive the loss of a job.  If you have tenure in an academic institution, then you probably can get through what otherwise might be the loss of your job.

But what has become clear is that these times are stressing many people to their limits, and that many, if not most of us do not have adequate, or in some cases, even minimal resources to cope with the stress the pandemic and its consequences are unleashing upon us.

Stress can cause a fight-or-flight syndrome, where we either want to fight the stressor (“Hey, let’s go to the beach without a mask and show who’s boss!”) or to flee the stressor (“I’m going to stay inside and never see anyone to make sure I don’t get that sucker!”).

The problem is that we not only have the stress of whatever is causing us to feel stressed out, but we get stress spillover, which occurs when the effects of stress in one area of our life spills over into another.

And when we transmit that stress to others—called stress crossover—our intimate relationship can be profoundly affected, and sometimes all the relationships in a family.

Sometimes, our social networks help us to deal with the stress—for example, they might suggest adaptive ways of dealing with whatever crisis we feel we are facing, such as fear of COVID-19.  They might tell us that we should wear a mask, socially distance, or wash our hands frequently.

But sometimes social networks are counterproductive, as when they tell us not to wear a mask, not to socially distance, and not to bother with hand-washing.  So, we need to develop techniques of our own for dealing with stress, as it can cripple our relationships.

What can you do to deal with the stress we all are dealing with right now?

1. Deal with the primary stressor.

Protect yourself against the stressor the best you can.  If it is COVID-19, act in ways to avoid it.  If it is financial ruin, formulate a spending plan to conserve resources.  If it is not traveling, do virtual journeys.

2. Find a hobby.

These days, you need something fun to occupy you—to give you a break from the source of stress. Yoga?  Karate?  Playing a musical instrument?  Singing?  Shooting hoops?  Collecting something?  Find yourself something that gets your mind off the stressor.

3. Get exercise.

Stress often is alleviated by exercise.  Find an exercise you like—walking, bike-riding, jogging, whatever. Nothing that will cause you more anxiety.

4. Eat well.

Don’t start overeating or eating junk food or other ultra-processed food.  Then you will add weight worries to all the worries you have.  Moreover, ultra-processed food affects your bodily badly, possibly causing even more anxiety.

5. Get the sleep you need.

Don’t start cutting down on sleep, thinking that working extra-long hours may rid you of anxiety.  If there ever has been a time when you need your sleep, this is it.

6. Lean on your friends.

Find yourself a friend or two with whom you can talk—someone outside your immediate household, and someone you trust and in whom you can confide.  You don’t need lots of friends now.  You need at least one or two good ones, if possible.

7. Consider meditation.

If you know how to meditate, try it.  If you don’t know, learn. It is really effective for dealing with anxiety during crises.

8. Realize you’re not alone.

Realize that others are in the same boat you are.  Almost everyone is struggling (except maybe liars and crooks!).   You’re not alone. Realize that this will end, even if not in the immediate future.  Realize that, yes, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. What is not clear yet is how long the tunnel will be.

9. Consider therapy.

You might want to find a therapist to help.

10. Consider medication.

There are anti-anxiety drugs available by prescription that might help you take the edge off.

Don’t let the stress ruin you or your relationship.  Now is the time to get a handle on things. If we can help, just drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.

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