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Commentary: Stress can make you stronger if you learn to identify when extra attention is needed

SINGAPORE: The last few weeks have seen growing apprehension as the cases of serious COVID-19 infections and deaths rise nationally.

At our hospital, the national institution for the mentally unwell, we have faced our own coronavirus outbreak

The anxiety over whether we could cope with the numbers, which rose rapidly for patients and the staff around them, had my heart pounding every time I thought of the situation. 

This is stress. Stress is the internal reaction to threats to the status quo.

It’s one of the most talked about feelings since COVID-19 struck. About 9 per cent surveyed by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) between May 2020 and June 2021 reported mild to severe stress while 13 per cent experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression.

WHEN STRESS BECOMES TOXIC

While stress has been thought of as something destructive that we struggle with and makes us ill, it plays a critical, even healthy, role in preparing our minds and bodies for a difficult situation.

Yes, toxic stress can take a toll on our minds and bodies when extreme emotions and symptoms take over, continue for a long time and begin to extend beyond an individual’s control. 

This is especially true during this pandemic in which individuals are isolated, families separated, and work disrupted. Added stress has come from managing kids while working from home and the uncertainty of whether businesses can reopen over these two years.

Creating supportive community ecosystems that encourage the social compact, neighbourliness, and love for one another can be facilitated by the teaching of emotional literacy in schools and workplaces. 

Emotion regulation, problem solving, mindfulness, interpersonal skills and even stress management training are competencies that can be built on the foundational values of care and concern for one another. 

We can take small steps to remind ourselves of our incredible fortitude and fortunes.

When I worry about what will happen in this next phase of the pandemic, and seeing the stress and burnout reported in the surveys of our workers, I remind myself of our healthcare teams as they do their utmost to contain the infections, manage their lives and turn to each other for care and support. 

In my regular chats with staff, I ask them who they go to for help and invariably, they point to the colleagues around them. 

And then I realise, what doesn’t kill you will indeed make you stronger. 

Daniel Fung is CEO of IMH.

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