Bad stuff has always happened to people, of course, and like other animals, our bodies mount physiological stress responses to improve our odds of survival. “Think about an animal, like a gazelle, on the African savannah, being hunted by a cheetah,” says Adrienne Heinz, a psychologist at the Stanford School of Medicine. If that gazelle is going to survive, it’s going to activate its fight-or-flight response, dilating its pupils and sending its heart rate and blood pressure sky-high, giving the nervous system a little jolt to quickly escape. If the gazelle makes it to safety, it will relax—but in a scenario with a prolonged threat, the gazelle will stay stressed. “If we continue to stay keyed up with high levels of cortisol and adrenaline, then we’re like the gazelle all the time,” says Heinz. “We’re not meant to sustain this level of overload to our nervous system.”
And it’s not just the constant stress of the pandemic—this year has also seen unprecedented wildfires, civil unrest as America grapples with the injustice of police murdering Black people, an election cycle that has threatened our country’s democracy, and a tanking economy. That’s leading to burnout, which has real physical, emotional, and cognitive effects: It increases heart disease risk, spurs depression and anxiety, induces brain fog or trouble concentrating, and—most crucially for our pandemic response—affects our decision-making.