That's a Stress Response
All the ways your body is (still) reactions to the pandemic
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I was sitting in the chair of a new hairdresser when she very gently asked: Did you know you’ve had some loss and breakage here?
No, no I did not. But this was back in November of 2021, and I immediately attributed the loss to the fact that I’d had my fine, thick, color-treated hair cut just twice between March 2020 and then. I’d never felt clumps fall out; I thought the amount of hair in the drain was just the result of it being the longest it’d ever been. Of course it was struggling.
Over the next four months, I researched and Twitter-queried re: the best water softeners. I started regularly using hair masks. I tried to be more gentle with my hair. I got a new hair stylist, one who helped figure out a cut that make the grow-in/grow-out from that hair loss look more natural.
And you know what? My hair does feel better. But I was looking in the mirror the other day, and I realized that the big patch of hair that I’d lost at the crown of my head — it had grown to about four inches, maybe five. And it suddenly hit me: I’d probably started losing that hair right around November 2020. The loss had continued over the next several months, probably right up to around the point when I got vaccinated in April 2021.
It’s hard to remember all of the mini-seasons of this pandemic, but I remember that one as amongst the most brutal. Socializing had largely stopped as the weather had begun to change. The lead-up to the election was indescribably tense. I was barely sleeping. I was trying to finish up publicity for one book and deep in the researching and writing on a second. Then the election was contested. Then there was a brief exhalation of a declared victory. Then there was an attempted coup. And through it all: childcare that was non-existent or wholly unpredictable, the pulsing threat of a virus that was killing thousands of people a day, a vaccine still months in the future.
I recite all of this not to be dramatic, but to remind ourselves that we lived through it. We compartmentalized the stress and ongoing trauma, flattening it into something survivable, but we nonetheless ate it for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner. We swam in that stress. We slept in it. We swallowed it in gulps. We lived through it, and we told ourselves stories of resilience, because what other choice did we have.
But the body is bad at pretending. It keeps the damn score.
I recall thinking, back in that winter of 2020/2021, that I’m doing okay, we have it so much easier than so many, no of course it’s not weird that I only want to watch Law & Order SVU. I wrote this newsletter every week. I finished the first draft of a book. And my hair was falling out.
My friend Amanda Mull wrote about this phenomenon back in November, right around the time my hairdresser first noticed my hair loss. Her piece is excellent, and goes through all the ways hair loss has been connected to both Covid itself and stress. As she rather beautifully explains,
Hair loss […] can be temporary or permanent, and it has many causes—heredity, chronic illness, nutritional deficiency, daily too-tight ponytails. But one type of loss is responsible for the pandemic hair-loss spike: telogen effluvium. TE, as it’s often called, is sudden and can be dramatic. It’s caused by the ordinary traumas of human existence in all of their hideous variety. Any kind of intense physical or emotional stress can push as much as 70 percent of your hair into the “telogen” phase of its growth cycle, which halts those strands’ growth and disconnects them from their blood supply in order to conserve resources for more essential bodily processes. That, in time, knocks them straight off your head.
I remember the piece coming through my feed. And I also remember thinking: that’s not what’s happening to me.
I knew that I had felt stress over the last few years but I had also narrativized that stress in a particular way: as nothing compared to what others were going through. No kids, steady income, able to work from home, not personally high risk. That remains true, and feels important to acknowledge. But bodies don’t gauge their stress response in comparison to other body’s hardships. They’re not logical, at least not in that way. My intense stress may have been less than others’, in other words, but that didn’t diminish how my body was internalizing it.
And so, instead of acknowledging — then or until recently — the effects of that structural stress, and connecting it to my hair loss, I did what so many of us learn to do: 1) conceive of it as a personal failing and 2) conceive of it as a personal failing remedied through consumerism.
I’ll admit: these deep-conditioning hair masks are awesome; I might never go back to plain old conditioner. But the frenzy of solution-finding blinded me to the root cause — which, in turn, makes me all the likelier to plow through future stress without considering the very real physical or mental ramifications. For myself, sure. But also for all of us: as a society, as a group of people reliant on one another, as people who cannot survive this life alone.
On Instagram, I asked readers if they’d experienced any of their own physical manifestations of accumulated stress and trauma — conditions and reactions and flare-ups they hadn’t immediately understood as pandemic-related. Within minutes, I had dozens of answers. Within an hour, hundreds. Twelve hours in, at least a thousand.
Just to start:
Persistent, debilitating neck pain
Jaw clenching, tight pelvic muscles causing vaginismus
Full body hives
IBS and new food sensitivities
New and now chronic insomnia
Persistent mouth ulcers
Brain fog (without having Covid)
TMJ so bad “I can hear my heart beating in my left ear constantly”
A type of rash (“pityriasis rosea”) that has no cure and has been around for 3 months
Inexplicable full body pain
Blister in the back of the eye
Constant jaw clenching + cracked teeth (x 1000)
Nausea and total lack of appetite
Going gray over the course of six months at age 33
Eating disorders returning with a vengeance
Enduring bad breath
Usually stable menstrual cycles becoming incredibly unstable
Inflamed misophonia (whew this is me too)
Heart palpitations diagnosed as delayed stress response
Extended migraines requiring hospitalization
Extreme joint soreness as the result of clutching hands during sleep
High blood pressure after decades of normal readings
Intense aggravation of chronic diseases
Unexplained weight gain and raised cholesterol when diet and exercise are consistent
Long-term, unshakeable exhaustion
Full body soreness after collective trauma events
And some longer testimonies:
“I turned 40 during the pandemic. I convinced myself that so many of my issues were just ‘getting old.’ I’d never experienced heartburn before. Weight gain and fatigue I couldn’t shake. Gastrointestinal sensitives I attributed to foods you just can’t eat in middle age. Hair loss. Now I think…maybe it was homeschooling middle schoolers, company downsizing, job searching, toxic boss, FIL dying, husband’s bout with severe and long-term Covid, my conservative state refusing to take Covid seriously, isolation….”
“I would randomly wake up with a swollen eye, knee, or finger, until one day I woke up with a swollen throat and had to go to the emergency doctor. Just stress, apparently. But it’s the back burner, daily, doesn’t register stress. The pre-existing conditions in kids, no masking in schools, delayed 0-4 vaxx, mandatory back to the office, no family nearby stress.”
“It’s also worth nothing that those of us with chronic inflammatory illnesses (like Crohn’s) — who are told the best path to remission is medication + significant reduction of stress — are deeply unmoored from our bodies. What is more stressful: avoiding news & feeling of guilt over inaction, and the fear of not keeping up with the newest dangers, OR engaging with the news, horror upon horror, which has an immediate impact on our bodies? In my Women’s with Crohn’s group, we are all a mess with no sign of being able to get a handle on stress every again.”
“I’ve seen intense inflammation in previously controlled chronic infections (adult acne, folliculitis, underarm fungal discoloration). And a weight gain of 25 pounds that has resulted in high cholesterol for the first time. I’m working to accept and celebrate my new body but what gets me is that my lifestyle didn’t change that much (already worked from home, already ordered takeout, already had a sweet tooth). I’ve been more active in the pandemic by being outside. I think my body went into survival stress mode and started pumping out cortisol and has never stopped. I have not had Covid. I’m 35.”
“Teacher here. The responses made me think about how last Friday I hit a wall and overnight was very ill, fever and aches, touchy stomach, and I genuinely think I was sick from the week and not a virus. I think the news made me sick.”
Does this feel like a laundry of afflictions? Yes! Do some of these people have long Covid and don’t realize it? Possible! Are some experiencing symptoms of syndromes or illnesses that would be manifesting even without stress or trauma? Likely, yes!
None of that means that stress and trauma aren’t related to, aggravating, or even the primary cause of many of these conditions. (Many people told me that their doctors had explicitly told them that what they were experiencing was a stress response). And it also doesn’t mean that just because these conditions are related in some way to stress that they shouldn’t be taken seriously by health care professionals.
Before the pandemic, we often minimized stress and anxiety and trauma related conditions — they were treated, by doctors, family, and the people experiencing them, as afflictions that only the patient had the power to change. As if a mother isolated in her home with three small children could just “get out more,” or father working three jobs to cover bills should “find time to exercise,” or a queer teen in a small town should “try making friends.” Until recently, there was very little understanding or acknowledgment of the physical and psychological effects of systemic racism, intergenerational trauma, and gender discrimination, and we’re only now coming to understand how sustained exposure to fatphobic, transphobic, and homophobic environments affects the body.
We’re bad at talking about this stuff because a lot of the causes are intertwined and intersectional: a combination of ailment/condition itself + lack of access to proper treatment of ailment/condition because of one’s identity, or location, or body size, or class. We’re also bad at talking about this stuff because we often take our cues from established medicine, and established medicine is still incredibly patriarchal, and geared towards straight cis-gendered thin people, and racist as hell.
But we’re especially bad at talking about it because of a collective tendency to treat ailments as personal. Sure, we can acknowledge that it takes a small village to support someone battling cancer. But what if the damn village caused the cancer? And not just one person’s cancer, or their immediate family’s, but everyone who looks like them, or lives in the same neighborhood, or speaks like them?
As a society, we are just generally reactive instead of proactive. We funnel money towards catastrophe response instead of investing in the sort of systems, change, or safety nets that would mitigate if not altogether prevent the catastrophe in the first place. We mourn consequences instead of looking unflinchingly at causes. There is no slack in the system, no space for bodily or psychological fragility, no accounting for rest and recuperation.
And yet: our bodies, as one woman put it to me, are amazing. They are trying so hard to protect us, even when their responses don’t immediately make sense. It’s our structures — the units of community and family and care that are supposed to catch us — that are fundamentally unwell.
Part of the problem is that we have become accustomed, as Tressie McMillan Cottom reminded us last week, to thinking of ourselves as “citizen-consumers”: we spend or donate our way out of crises —and, if that fails, spin our story into a compelling GoFundMe, in order to get others to spend or donate, to care, to underwrite our lives and survival as worthy.
None of it is sufficient. There is so much suffering, and then so much additional suffering inherent to the work of pretending that original suffering doesn’t exist. That our hair isn’t falling out. That there isn’t a knife slowly twisting in our back, as one woman describing her enduring muscular pain. That we’re not shattering our teeth in our sleep. That our bodies aren’t in crisis. That the ropes tethering us to each other, and to solid ground, are failing. And — like so many struggles now felt so keenly (and often for the first time) by those with societal privileges — that people without those privileges have been feeling this way for years. For decades.
So we can navigate this alone, as so many of us have, further dismissing what ails us as personal and potentially solvable, if only we could just get the right Wirecutter pick. But we do not occupy this earth in isolation. Any personal healing is temporary at best. I wish I could be more sunny here, but that’s the same attitude that had me refusing to admit my hair had fallen out in the first place.
Recovery, stability, health — I know those terms mean different things to different people, in different bodies, with different situations. But on a societal scale, I also know this: we recover together — or not at all.
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My focus has been the main casualty of my stress. I'm a reader who can't read more than memes, a knowledge worker who's coasting, a thinker who gets sucked into Tik Tok so I don't have to really think about anything. It doesn't sound physical but it feels that way, like my brain just doesn't have the ability to fire all the right neurons at the right time. It feels like it's tired and heavy and could use a year on the beach.
I don’t know where to begin with this other than I feel very seen and very sad all at the same time. I’ve noticed I’ve had to go back to practices that helped me weather PTSD diagnoses and treatment and while I thought it was mostly postpartum anxiety again (although whew should we even start to talk about how exhausting being pregnant in this societal soup is), I think it’s also just all of this. Cracked teeth, yes. Insomnia, yes. Intrusive anxious thoughts and images before bed, yes. Bone tired fatigue, yes. It’s better than it was when I was pregnant but it’s there. Im struggling with it and I literally research how stress becomes biologically embedded. I am a cortisol scientist. And while we need, NEED, the collective healing and restructuring I think we also need the individual life savers in the meantime because I don’t know that our bodies can survive waiting for societal structures. Maybe it’s too pessimistic, but I’m focused on surviving on my individual level and trying to fix the societal structures for my kids because I don’t know that I’ve got the longevity to benefit from that change without also doing intense individual survival self care