Rachel* was driving home from the school run last month when her head began pounding and the coffee she had drunk on her way out the door that morning began swirling in her stomach. “I got home, managed to quickly get my key in the door, before throwing up all over my hallway.”
It was a hangover, of sorts, but not the usual kind. “My husband was furloughed in the summer and lost his job in marketing in September. I haven’t worked since having our first child eight years ago, so every night, week after week, I lay awake worrying about how we were going to pay the mortgage. The night before I was sick, I had worked out that even with help from our family we had fewer than four months to go before we would lose our family home.
“And it had started to take its toll. I was getting migraines, I felt tired but couldn’t sleep. The vomiting incident seemed to be a manifestation of what I was going through.”
It’s a feeling many will recognise. Experts believe the prolonged pressure and worry we have endured this year are now coming to a head in the form of a “stress hangover”.
If you didn’t feel sick with stress before, the chaos caused by this weekend’s U-turn will be the last straw for many. With Christmas suddenly cancelled for large swathes of the population, and today’s winter solstice – the darkest day of the year – marking the start of months of severe restrictions, the cracks are starting to show.
“Most of us are ending this year both emotionally and physically wrung out, after one of the most gruelling 10 months in living memory,” says Kavita Vedhara, a professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham, who is studying the effects of lockdown on stress and anxiety levels.
Last week, the Mental Health Foundation reported that UK adults are experiencing deepening distress as the year draws to a close. Researchers discovered between March and November, loneliness rose from 10 per cent to 25 per cent, and the proportion of people who are “coping well with the stress of the pandemic” has fallen steadily between April and November.
“This year has been relentless,” says Professor Vedhara. “Unlike most stressful situations, 2020 has been unique because its stressors have been ongoing, with unpredictable twists and turn along the way, and no clear end in sight.
“While most of us are able to bounce back from transient stress – being stuck in traffic, a deadline, a house move – the kind of novel, unpredictable and protracted stress the pandemic has presented us with eats away at our reserves and saps our coping resources.”
Prof Vedhara explains that just as too much alcohol leaves you with a hangover, too much stress over an extended period of time leaves you with a type of stress hangover that includes, “very profound physical changes, including to the endocrine system”. This system produces hormones, which activate cell-level behaviours that lead to physical and emotional changes.
“Physically, our heart health and immune systems can suffer, we experience fatigue, poor sleep, a loss of appetite, our digestion is affected. And our behaviour changes too. We did a large study in 2018 that showed chronic stress affects our behaviour. All the things you’d expect – we eat more, we drink more, we smoke more, we become more sedentary. So we gain weight, too.”
Along with feelings of panic and worry or becoming short-tempered or disproportionately angry, stress has a myriad of physical effects. It’s common for it to manifest as gut trouble – Irritable Bowel Syndrome–like symptoms, such as cramps, diarrhoea or constipation, or to affect the skin. Dermatologists have reported soaring referrals this year with patients suffering dry skin, random break-outs, and worsening of conditions such as eczema as a result of high anxiety levels. Hair loss and teeth grinding have also risen as a result of the pandemic.
“A few things will dictate whether stress has a debilitating effect on our health and wellbeing – whether it’s ongoing, whether it involves uncertainty and a lack of control,” says Professor Cary Cooper, a Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester University’s business school. “And we have all those things with Covid.”
While news of a vaccine at the start of the month provided some relief, Prof Cooper says the subsequent heightened anxiety around school closures, together with Christmas planning and the hugely disruptive changes announced this weekend, has left many of us feeling worse than ever. So, how can you cure – or at least ease – your 2020 stress hangover?
Forget the to-do list, and make time to have fun
In the run-up to Christmas, it can be easy to suffer burnout from all the planning and preparations. “We did some research at the beginning of the pandemic and found people who had lived through past pandemics experienced less anxiety and stress when they did things that made them happy,” says Prof Vedhara, who advises people to ensure they find time to have fun amidst the gloom. “Take time every day to do at least one thing that makes you feel good, makes you laugh out loud if possible, and reach out to friends, family or seek professional help as soon as you feel things are becoming unmanageable.”
Loneliness has been strongly linked to stress – so maintaining social connections is vital. “Some people have been dreadfully isolated this year. We have to be safe, but try and stay as socially connected as possible. If you can, arrange to go for a walk with a local friend or neighbour to stave off loneliness.”
Keep doing the basics
“Exercising, eating well, going to bed at a reasonable hour and having a few alcohol-free days a week are all stress-protective,” says Prof Vedhara. “Even at this time of year, get outside every day for a walk, which will give you several stress-protecting benefits; fresh air, time in nature, if you go somewhere green, exercise, and vitamin D.”
Nutritionist Lorna Driver-Davies says that vitamin D can also help stave off a stress hangover: “Vitamin D plays an important role in stress management and the more stressed you are, the less able you are to produce good levels of vitamin D.”
The NHS currently advises UK adults supplement with vitamin D between October and March to keep bones and muscles healthy, and in particular people who have been shielding.
Don’t doomscroll – and prioritise sleep
“It’s important to read the news and stay informed about what’s going on,” says Prof Cooper. “But don’t get drawn into gloomy predictions on Twitter or Facebook and be careful who you follow. Being exposed to endless bad news has been shown to be bad for our health, so limit yourself to reading or listening to good sources twice a day and avoid social media if you’re feeling overwhelmed because studies show it can increase stress.”
Our sleep is another casualty of 2020, with studies showing insomnia and sleep disorders have increased this year. “Sleep is a powerful stress reducer, improving mood, concentration and feelings of calm,” says Driver-Davies. “Getting plenty of light during the day – even if it’s a walk – helps sleep, as does magnesium, which is found in cooked beans (like pinto, black beans or chickpeas), almonds, cashews and flaxseed. Or take a supplement.”
Have coffee after breakfast
Driver-Davies says the first thing you should do if you’re feeling stressed is to stop drinking coffee before you eat breakfast. “It increases the stress hormone cortisol and really upsets your blood sugar levels. Yet so many of us put the kettle on or grab our first flat white of the day-long before we eat breakfast.”
Eating first will keep your blood sugar levels more balanced, which reduces stress and inflammation in the body, she says
Other ways to balance blood sugar levels include eating less sugar, less snacking, more whole foods and a little healthy fat and protein with every meal.
Take comfort from the past
“History has taught us that humans are much more resilient than we think we are,” says Prof Vedhara. “Humans have faced global difficulty and tragedy before and we do come through the other side, eventually.”