Written by Nancy Fitzgerald
Remember swinging up and down on a teeter-totter as a kid? As your partner’s weight hit the ground, they’d hold all the power and control—and you’d sit, dangling helplessly in midair, terrified that you’d come crashing down at any moment.
Stress stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic is a lot like that, says Darlene Kertes, Ph.D., director of developmental psychology at the University of Florida and an expert on stress and health. Constant anxiety and uncertainty pump our bodies with the stress hormone cortisol , which can leave us feeling as though we’re flailing.
But cortisol isn’t necessarily the bad guy, Dr. Kertes explains. The hormone is responsible for a number of critical functions, like helping our neurons stay responsive, regulating glucose levels, and even assisting with memory function. Cortisol might have also helped our ancestors stay alive, she notes. When a tiger prowled around a village, its residents could rely on cortisol to help them stay alert and energized to deal with the emergency. Check your cortisol levels now.
But when the tiger was gone and life had gone back to normal, those stress hormones went back to normal too.  These days, instead of a once-in-a-while tiger to worry about, we’re faced with a constant barrage of stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic: fears about our health and the health of our loved ones, economic instability, and loneliness and depression. [1,2]
The more stress we encounter, the more cortisol our bodies pump out. And too much cortisol can lead to physical illness [1,2]. “Your body is meant to release cortisol when you’re under extreme stress—it keeps you alive,” explains Dr. Kathryn Boling, M.D., a family physician in Baltimore. “But when you’re bombarded by high levels of stress sending out cortisol all the time, other health problems start to kick in.”
Is COVID-19 stress affecting your body? Here are five ways to tell—and how to get the help you need.
COVID Stress Signal #1: You Catch Multiple Colds
One of cortisol’s key jobs is to reduce inflammation. But if cortisol levels are too high for too long, it’s bad news for your immune system, says Dr. Kertes. “Cortisol production can shift immune function in ways that can make chronic problems worse or even cause some new health issues,” she explains.
What this means: stress can potentially increase your risk of catching a viral infection. Take colds, for example. In one study, 276 healthy people were exposed to a cold virus. Those who reported that they’d been experiencing prolonged stress were much more likely to catch the infection than those who were not stressed. 
The obvious way to combat this problem, of course, is to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for staying safe and infection-free. Avoid close contact with people from outside of your own home, wash your hands frequently, and wear a face mask whenever you’re in public.
COVID Stress Signal #2: The Number on the Scale Is Rising
Did you gain extra weight this year? Fluctuating hormones could be to blame. A recent study of more than 2,500 men and women found that those with higher levels of cortisol also had larger waist circumferences, were heavier, and had a higher body mass index. And those who were classified as obese had especially high cortisol levels. 
One reason: “When you’re in a state of chronic stress, cortisol shifts the way you make decisions,” says Dr. Kertes. “When you make poor food choices and engage in stress-eating, the emotional center in your brain takes over the decision-making and you’re less likely to make good choices.”
Aside from the obvious softening around your mid-section, Dr. Boling warns that weight gain (especially when a lot in a short period of time) can have serious long-term effects.
“As your weight goes up, so does your blood pressure and even your risk of diabetes,” explains Dr. Boling. “It’s not only the cortisol—it’s the cortisol coupled with anxiety, stress, and inactivity. The cortisol sets off a whole cascade of consequences.”
COVID Stress Signal #3: Your Tummy Won’t Stop Grumbling
When your body is in chronic stress mode, other important functions tend to shut down or be hindered, such as your ability to digest and absorb food properly.
“Our brain is closely connected to our gut,” Dr. Boling explains. “When you’re experiencing stress, you’re more likely to have a stomach upset. You might notice more reflux or other gastrointestinal issues.”
COVID Stress Signal #4: You’re Breaking Out (or Losing Hair)
A resurgence of pimples in adulthood? Extra strands, or even chunks, of hair coming off your head? Cortisol may be to blame, yet again.
A recent review of studies found that when the stress hormone is present at high levels, it interferes with the way your hair follicles work, slowing hair growth—and speeding up hair shedding—by about 40 percent. 
Cortisol can impact your complexion too, increasing oil production that can cause acne and other skin conditions.  “The effects of the pandemic show up in so many ways,” says Dr. Boling, noting that patients with skin problems and hair loss are often also under significant stress.
COVID Stress Signal #5: Your Cholesterol Levels Went Up
Cortisol from chronic stress may raise your levels of cholesterol and blood fats—risk factors for heart disease. It can even play a part in the buildup of plaque deposits in your arteries, making your blood stickier, which could increase your risk of blood clots or a stroke.  (And because it controls your body’s salt and water balance, cortisol—along with the other stress hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine—can raise your blood pressure as well.)
4 Easy Ways to Tame Pandemic Stress
We may not know exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out, but one thing’s for sure: Pandemic stress is taking a toll on everybody’s mental and physical health. It’s normal to feel anxious and a bit overwhelmed.
But there are things you can do to help yourself.
“The life circumstances that make us respond the most are the ones that are both unpredictable and uncontrollable. The coronavirus pandemic is both,” says Dr. Kertes. “So anything you can do to regain some predictability and control will help you cope with the stress. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy, so you’ve got to find what works for you.” Try these stress-busting tips:
Keep tabs on your cortisol. When it comes to connecting extra cortisol to any symptoms you’re having, it’s important to get tested. Take an at-home cortisol test now.
Set a schedule. Your normal agenda? That’s a thing of the past. Dr. Kertes recommends coming up with a new one and sticking with it. “Establish a normal routine in your household,” Dr. Kertes suggests. “Set times for sleeping, working, home-schooling. You may not have control over the pandemic, but a schedule can help you gain control and predictability over some aspects of your life.”
Spend time doing something enjoyable. It could be 15 minutes of meditation, a quiet half-hour reading a novel, or working on your favorite craft project. “Anything that makes you feel good reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels,” says Dr. Boling.
Move more. Exercise lowers your body’s stress hormones and boosts your feel-good hormones.  And exercising outdoors—even a walk around the neighborhood—is even more effective. Too cold to head outdoors? If you’ve got a treadmill or stationary bike, or even just an iPhone to stream YouTube workout videos, set it up in front of the TV.
“Couple exercise with something else that feels good,” Dr. Boling suggests. “Get involved in a show you really like and commit to watching it only when you exercise.”
- Talk to someone If the above tips aren’t working, it can be helpful to talk to someone about how you are feeling. Reach out to a friend, family member, health care provider, or local support service.
How to Reduce Cortisol and Turn Down the Dial on Stress
Harvard Medical School
Harvard Health Publishing
Understanding the stress response
Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Doyle WJ, Miller GE, Frank E, Rabin BS, Turner RB.
Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2012 Apr 17;109(16):5995-9
University of Rochester Medical Center
Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease
Johns Hopkins Medicine
Hormones and the Endocrine System
Jackson SE, Kirschbaum C, Steptoe A.
Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population-based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years.
Obesity (Silver Spring) 2017 Mar;25(3):539-544
Mavrangelos C, Campaniello MA, Andrews JM, Bampton PA, Hughes PA.
Longitudinal analysis indicates symptom severity influences immune profile in irritable bowel syndrome.
Gut 2018 Feb;67(2):398-399
Exhausted immune cells linked to irritable bowel syndrome
Stress and the Hair Growth Cycle: Cortisol-Induced Hair Growth Disruption.
Journal of Drugs in Dermatology 2016 Aug 1;15(8):1001-4
Lawton E, Brymer E, Clough P, Denovan A.
The Relationship between the Physical Activity Environment, Nature Relatedness, Anxiety, and the Psychological Well-being Benefits of Regular Exercisers.
Frontiers in Psychology 2017 Jun 26;8:1058