More than 36% of U.S. adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression in August 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By January 2021, the number was above 40%.
It’s not hard to see why. A novel and scary virus was spreading without vaccines to slow it. Cities and states were in various degrees of lockdown for much of 2020, with many people forgoing special occasions and visits with friends and family. Isolation and fear were widespread, and people had every reason to feel acutely stressed.
But even as lockdowns lifted, people got vaccinated, and life resumed more of its normal rhythms, many people continued to feel…off. In an American Psychological Association survey published in October 2021, 75% of people said they’d recently experienced consequences of stress, including headaches, sleep issues, fatigue, and feeling overwhelmed.
Now, more than two years into the pandemic, many people still haven’t bounced back. One reason could be “ambient stress”—or “stress that’s running in the background, below the level of consciousness,” says New York-based clinical psychologist Laurie Ferguson, who is director of education development at the Global Healthy Living Foundation, a nonprofit that supports people with chronic illnesses.
“There’s something amiss, but we’re not registering it all the time,” Ferguson says. “We’re always just a little bit off balance. We kind of function at a level like everything’s fine and things are normal, when in fact, they’re not.”
In a 1983 article published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researcher Joan Campbell described ambient stressors as those that are chronic and negative, cannot be substantively changed by an individual, usually do not cause immediate threats to life (but can be damaging over time), and are perceptible but often unnoticed. “Over the long run,” Campbell wrote, these stressors could affect “motivation, emotions, attention, [physical] health, and behavior.”
Campbell cited examples like pollution and traffic noise, but it’s also an apt description of this stage of the pandemic. In March 2020, the pandemic was an in-your-face stressor—one that, at least for many people, felt urgent and all-consuming. Two years later, most people have adapted, to some degree. Most people are vaccinated, the news isn’t broadcasting the latest case counts 24/7, and life looks closer to 2019 than 2020. But, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re still bearing the psychic toll of two years of death, disease, upheaval, and uncertainty, as well as smaller disruptions like changes to our social or work lives, Ferguson says.
Even ambient stress can have health consequences, as Campbell pointed out. Humans evolved to deal with short-term stressors, but we’re not as good at coping with chronic stress, explains Laura Grafe, an assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College. Chronic stress has been linked to conditions including high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep issues, and mental health and cognitive disorders.