Covid Related “Compression Syndrome” — Don’t Let the Media Drive Up Your Stress

The Scream by Edvard Munch, Photographed by Borre Hostland, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design

“Compression Syndrome.” You probably have never heard of it. It may not be a formal medical syndrome but I suspect once defined you will not be surprised.

Nine months into this pandemic and we’re all tired. We’re all frustrated. There’s so much frustration and the stress just keeps building and building and building. And it’s not just what we’re facing concerning the coronavirus — the masks, the social distancing, giving people more space, avoiding crowds, no restaurants or movies, and so on. It is also the other events nationally that add to our stress. There were the social justice protests. There was the violence with the protests. There is the disrupted economy. There are many of our friends or maybe ourselves that are out of work. There are so many things going on and they layer on top of another, piling on in what seems an endless cycle.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Harry Oken was telling me that beginning in about July, he has seen more and more patients coming into his primary care office with what he labeled “compression syndrome.” Consider your vehicle engine. If you continually force the compression up it will start to knock, to ping and in general not work effectively. And if you force the compression up long enough the O-rings will go, the gaskets will be damaged and the engine starts to burn oil. Dr. Oken sees that as an analogy to what he is encountering with his patients. More and more patients coming in every day with the same thing.

It’s just like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. You know the painting, here’s an image of it at the start of this article. Just like the person there, the stress is pushing at your head, pushing in until you just can’t handle it anymore. You become overwhelmed, literally overwhelmed. That creates a downward spiral of emotions which results in loss of robust health due to a combination of poorer eating habits, less exercise, inadequate sleep, and of course accelerating chronic stress. Dr. Oken notes that many, not all of course, but many of his patients live a really healthy lifestyle. But even those people are not eating right, they’re not exercising well, they’re not sleeping well. All of the things that are so important to us. And when that happens our immune system is markedly diminished and our risk of infection goes up.

What does he ascribe it to? The media. Yes, there is the stress of dealing with the pandemic as best you can which creates a significant underlying chronic stress but the media markedly accelerates it. They want to get our eyeballs, our readership. To do so, they make everything exciting, stimulating. That unhealthy emotional stimulation is markedly exacerbated by social media. It’s exacerbated by media commentators who like nothing better than to find what is wrong with one national leader versus another. “Dr. Fauci was wrong about masks; Dr. Redfield and the CDC messed up with testing, etc.” It doesn’t matter if you’re left or right, there are many media “personalities” pushing dire predictions and concerns. It’s all going on all the time. And it just builds, builds, and builds your stress. As your stress rises, you pump your stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. These chemicals normally rise rapidly if you are beset with an acute emergency, like a truck coming at you. But they subside rapidly once the danger is gone. Long term elevations, even at low levels, are not healthy. Yet for the past nine months, you have been stressed by fear, concern for family while frustrated at what you are asked to do to protect yourself and fellow citizens. The sheltering in place, the masks, the social distancing, and so on. But your stress is exacerbated every day — “the case counts are going up,” “there is looting and burning out of control,” “it is unsafe to be on the street due to the violence,” “the hurricane is coming and it will destroy huge swaths of the country,” and on and on the media keeps up a cacophony of gloom and doom. They have your attention as desired but it is costing you heavily in chronic stress and its aftermath. Don’t let it lead you to dispair, do not lose hope.

Dispair by Edvard Munch, Theilska Galleriet, Stockholm,Photographed by Tord Lund

What’s the fix? It is the same as what I talked about with “Caution Fatigue.” It is simple to state but harder to effectuate. Take care of yourself. Interact with others. Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise daily. Find ways to reduce stress with meditation, yoga, Tai Chi.

But the other critical key is to reduce the incoming stressors from the media. Put some firm limits on your media consumption. I would suggest a half-hour max. That should be plenty of time to learn the news and stay connected by Facebook or other social media. Yes, Covid cases are rising and rising rapidly but you only need a quick glance at the numbers, not an in-depth read every day.

The second thing I would suggest is that, as a general rule, newspapers are better than radio, and radio is better than TV, and TV is better than the news on social media. Read a good newspaper, one that is well-edited, relatively unbiased (harder to find anymore but take a look at this analysis) and you can get factual information without it screaming at you — well, not too much. Distance yourself from the local TV news which is mostly about violence and the other negatives in life and community. Do avoid the doom and gloom commentators and especially the news on social media. It is unedited, always one-sided, and designed to stoke your passions — just what you do not need at this time in life.

So, those are some suggestions. We all are very susceptible to compression syndrome right now because we’ve been through so much. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on since March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and now December. It’s just building and building and it’s not going to end soon. Yes, vaccines are definitely on the way and there are new treatments for covid19 including two monoclonal antibodies. Some people are certain the pandemic will be over in no time. No, it won’t. Vaccines will come online by the end of the year but not enough to immunize everyone for six months at least.

Today’s message — be aware of compression syndrome. If you see it in yourself (and I would argue that it is very likely you have it but have not thought about it), stop and consider what you can do to reverse it. Don’t overload yourself with bad news just because there are plenty of purveyors of bad news. Tamp it down. Live a healthy lifestyle as best as you can. You will feel so much better as a result. Your immune system will be happier and that just could save your life.

Note: Dr. Oken and I recently authored a new book, BOOM — Boost Our Own Metabolism which can be very helpful in these troubling times to help you maximize your health.

Note: The essence of this article can be found in this short video.

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