The pandemic has brought stress to the forefront. Parts of life that seemed effortless now have a weight to them. It’s strange to calculate the risk of seeing family or mentally checking your six-foot perimeter during a grocery run. A year has gone by and these simple tasks don’t seem to be getting any easier. Coronavirus has created many new mental loads in a variety of places which, inevitably, requires our mental fortitude to hold the new weight. A by-product of holding up the new weight is a mountain of extra stress.
Stress is an interesting concept. It has different yet similar meanings in different contexts. For example, the engineering world has a metric for stress. Engineering stress measures the forces that particles exert on each other when under a load. Think of a diving board. It bends as the diver walks towards the end yet it does not break. The particles of the board don’t want to separate so they fight to stay together and rely on the strength of their bonds to shoulder the load.
The weight of the diver is transferred through the board’s particle bonds to the anchor point by the side of the pool. All of the tiny particles that make up the board must work together to shoulder the weight. And they succeed! The board may bend but our molecular friends hang on and safely deliver the diver into a perfect swan dive. This is obviously not the only case. Every material that sees a force bends and twists to accommodate the force. Most of the time it is so slight it is impossible to see but even our muscles and bones bend to accommodate the stress of picking up a book.
Bending under stress isn’t limited to the material world. We even created an idiom, ‘bend but don’t break’, because the phenomenon applies to many aspects of life. The mental loads we described above also need to be held. But what happens when we try to hold too much?
Every material has its breaking point. Even the hardest steel will break with enough force. The nature of the break is the deadly part. Materials break catastrophically. When something breaks, it breaks completely. Our psychology isn’t much different. Trying to mentally hold too much will also end catastrophically. It’s very sudden. You’re holding it and then you’re not. That’s when we do something we regret.
The tricky part is understanding our mental limits. There is no universal data that we can look up to gauge our specific brain’s breaking point. We need to curate that data ourselves. We do this through self-awareness. We are all carrying a lot right now so noticing when our mental state starts to shift is of the utmost importance. When does your mood sour? How are you responding to minor setbacks? Are you experiencing surprising negative thoughts? Or even lack of energy? These are all warning signs of an overloaded psyche. We have incredibly durable minds, but remember, even the hardest steel will break under enough stress.
These are intense times. Take care of your minds and find your outlets. We don’t have to be heroes and carry the world every single day. Check-in with yourself, rely on others, and be honest. Watch for your own personal warning signs and mounting stress. Take breaks and treat yourself when you can. Don’t put this off. It’s much harder to recover from the fallout of a break than it is to lighten your load. Give yourself permission to be human with all the limits that come with that title.
That’s how we are going to get through this thing.