Did you know that stress was actually a good thing? Of course, the benefits of stress follow a u-shaped curve in that it is a good thing up to a point, but stress is actually necessary for thriving. The example I use to explain what I mean is astronauts in space. Even with regular exercise, astronauts in space lose muscle mass and bone density. This is due largely to the effects of living in a zero-gravity environment. We need the stress of gravity to keep our muscles and bones healthy.
This loss of mass and density seems to happen on an emotional and cognitive level as well. I am meeting an increasing number of people who seem to have become emotionally and cognitively feeble, likely resulting from reduced stress due to the pandemic. One of the main features of this pandemic is physical isolation. This is necessary to slow the spread of the virus since people are the main transmitter of the disease. As a result, we are inside more, alone more, and on screens more. Many people report that their life was initially easier. There was less commuting, fewer crowds, lower expectations for formal behavior, and the like. If we didn't like what someone was saying, we turned them off. We canceled the social events we dreaded or despised because they were also unsafe.
Reports were coming to me that even when a person had a chance to go outside the house, or see a friend in a socially distanced setting, or take a drive to a new place, they were turning it down. And not because they had better things to do. People have told me they put dating and relationships completely on hold. Many have left their college programs or delayed looking for work. Still, more tell me they are reluctant to get a vaccine. These people can all recognize that these are safe and good and healthy opportunities, but they cannot convince themselves to do them if they are voluntary. All of these opportunities also require a change or effort, which are forms of stress. I see that these people have become feeble, both emotionally and cognitively, and cannot bring themselves to do it.
When entering the earth's gravity, astronauts have a tough road in front of them. Simple tasks like walking and getting out of chairs become laborious and effortful. They must exert intense effort to get back to the place they were before liftoff. I would imagine they are at greater risk for injury. Worse, these formerly simple tasks of walking upstairs and lifting the groceries were part of what kept them active and healthy in the first place. Reluctance to do these simple activities can create other risks to their health. All of this is true for the cognitively and emotionally feeble. Cognitively feeble people will watch TV instead of reading a book because reading a book requires concentration that only comes with great effort. Emotionally feeble people will avoid texting friends because of the potential for disagreements or drama that they feel they cannot currently tolerate or manage. The problem is that social interaction and exercising the mind through reading are essential to cognitive and emotional health.
Before we get back to normal life, perhaps even this summer, all of us are going to have to address the effects of a year of limited social interaction and intense exposure to screens, among other things. Some of us have become feeble, and not just in body, but in mind and spirit. Perhaps this first round of vaccines is us entering the earth's atmosphere. Soon we will be on the ground, and we will need to get ready to apply effort to simple tasks.