COVID-19 – Leaving us Stressed

It seems a long time ago when we were living our dreams to achieve our goals in life: a career in aviation and an inherent stability, emotional and financial, that comes with a job, until COVID-19 hit us all. It continues to plague our lives. As for achieving our goals in life, when faced with any hindrance or obstacle, it causes stress. This is in response to any perceived or real impediment, leaving us feeling vulnerable. Basically, we feel stressed when the prevailing circumstances overwhelm our capabilities or resources to cope with it. The reference to capabilities or resources here are internal, where the mind perceives the adverse situation and the body responds, rather reacts to it. It may leave us feeling like an over-wound spring in a clock!

Actually speaking, denial to pursue the desired life-goals can result in distress due to a career coming to a standstill and the need to look out alternative means of livelihood. This may even surface as feeling low with our cherished career goals seeming to slip away, as also the financial instability due to large scale job losses in the aviation sector.

Stress is response to any adverse situation. All that the body is trying to do is to prepare us to cope with the situation. The adversity could be any perceived or real threat, harm or challenge to our life-goals. Such impediment or obstruction, irrespective of the cause, needs to be seen in the context of either avoidance or approach. 

  • A failure of ‘avoidance’, as the name suggests, is fear of something untoward happening while faced with an adverse situation. For example, fear of contracting COVID-19 while in a crowded place. Another example could be the financial strain due to loss of employment. This could manifest in anxiety and fear. 
  • A failure in ‘approach’ is a sort of blocked pathway, literally a roadblock in the works. This in the context of COVID-19 could be seen as impacting one’s employment. This could seem to be worse among those who doubt their future employability due to the precipitous downturn in the aviation sector, if they are not trained for anything other than their profession in aviation. This could result in feelings of frustration and anger. 
  • A unique context, along the lines of approach, is ‘challenge’ wherein the obstacle does not seem unsurmountable. Such a hopeful situation, despite uncertainty, results in positive feelings of hope, excitement and eagerness. Under prevailing circumstances, this could be true for those pilots who have been sent on unpaid leave, while the airlines wait for the commercial aviation to recommence, to enable them to return to work. They could be faced with doubts or anxiety about the present, but know that the imminent future need not be bleak.

Another aspect of stress is appraisal of both the situation and our readiness or ability to respond to it. The latter aspect determines whether we are confident to face the situation or do we have doubts about our abilities to cope with it. Naturally, such an appraisal would also affect our perception of severity of stress. An aggravating factor is our assessment of the threat or loss of our ‘resources’. Resources are what is valuable to us – physical and financial assets, our career, stability in relationship, our own sense of well-being, health, etc. Resources are important for us to continue pursuing our goals in life, to strive to improve upon what we have attained/acquired or an endeavour to maintain or improve our lifestyle. One of the reasons for the threat to our resources, when faced with any acute or chronic situation, is that we may lose those or fail to sustain or replenish it. Such an appraisal, doubt or fear induces stress. In particular, facing COVID-19, with its likely long-term impact on both our health and employment, reinforces the need to protect or conserve our resources to combat these unexpected hard times that has fallen on us. 

We have an imperative need to conserve our resources, both health and home, to sustain or afford the current lifestyle, while remaining positive about the future (even though the present seems economically bleak with a direct threat to our sense of well-being). Any perceived or real threat to our resources would induce stress, especially due to uncertainties about how long the situation may last and what it may mean for our earning potential, assuming that we are not affected by COVID-19 in terms of infection or its complications. But why do we feel stressed when our resources are threatened or depleted? The obvious answer is that any adverse outcome, even the fear of loss, triggers stress in response to anticipation of how it may affect our sense of well-being and impact the quality of our life. This is particularly important if our personal and social commitments are tied to our ability to earn enough to sustain the life we aspire for.

We need to remember that perception of threat itself induces stress within. The current threat that we are all faced with is COVID-19 pandemic. This has impacted our daily lives, employment and the imminent future. There are many unknowns about this pandemic:

  • how long will it last; 
  • how adversely will it impact the aviation industry, in turn our employability;
  • in case there are delays in the reopening of the aviation sector, how to sustain ourselves while our financial resources continue to dip and we have the burden of our obligations towards the family and those dependent on us; 
  • whether we are prepared to look for an alternative employment to tide over the crisis staring in our face; and still more importantly 
  • are we trained for an alternative job other than aviation related? 

Imagine with so many unanswered questions staring in our faces, some of us may feel overwhelmed by the changed circumstances due to the threat to our means of livelihood and our sense of well-being. The resulting stress from these uncertainties affect our abilities to cope with the situation. However, please remember only when faced with a challenging situation, we discover our inner reserves and resilience to cope with it. Even though we may at times feel that the situation seems to be getting the better of us, yet each of us needs to remain steadfast and focused irrespective of the magnitude of the adversities face with a positive attitude. 

Remember that this phase in our lives would seem short when we come out the winner on the other side once this crisis blows away. It is the perils of the unknown path that we currently tread, with its own set of uncertainties, that may affect some of us more severely than others. Since we are all walking along the same path, it is imperative for each of us to not only take care of ourselves but look out for others as well. This is especially important to help those among us whom we find struggling to cope with the situation by extending a helping hand despite at times running low on our own reserves. If we find another overwhelmed due to their inability to cope with the stress, remember to guide or call out for timely professional help to tide over the crisis.  

We are all in it together, so we all need to sail through the prevailing bad weather by holding each other’s hands – call out, if you need help; and reach out to your family, friends, colleagues, for they may need your help. 

This blog is based on the chapter “Stress, Coping, and Health” in The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology.

Carver CS, Vargas S. Stress, Coping, and Health. In The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology. Howard S. Friedman, editor. Oxford University Press 2011; 162-188
DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195342819.001.0001