Low income increases the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic

Share this:

by Christine Thou, Environmental Sciences editor

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically shifted how Canadians live their lives. Arguably, no one has felt this as keenly as low-income individuals. Their struggles to access important resources and meet financial commitments expose them to stress stimuli that make enduring the pandemic more difficult. Overall, these challenges are often detrimental to both their physical health and their psychological well-being, creating a feedback loop that can be tough to break out of.


One pathway of stress: the brain and its connection to the kidney and how it contributes to the stress response. Image, Wikimedia Commons, CC0

What is stress?

To understand how the pandemic has impacted people in lower income communities so adversely, it is vitally important to understand what stress is first. It is the body’s response to intrinsic or extrinsic pressure, be it physical, mental or emotional. In the short term, stress can be beneficial.

However, a long period of excess stress will damage most people’s health. For example, findings demonstrate that chronic stress can create structural changes in the brain such as atrophy. In turn, the brain’s cognitive abilities and memory are impacted.

These alterations dampen a person’s capacity to respond to stressful situations in the future.

Economic uncertainty increases stress

According to Alex Bierman, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary, there are two major sources of stress that Canadians have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most prominent of these is economic uncertainty, defined as having difficulty predicting one’s income. For many in this position, the inability to afford necessities such as housing and groceries is a major source of distress.

“What we’ve observed is a division whereby Canadians who are at economic risk prior [to the pandemic] have been especially subject to increased risk for basic financial stress, which encompasses paying bills and supporting the family,” she says. “People who have been in privileged positions prior [to the pandemic’s onset] do not face as much adversity.”

Nonetheless, not all Canadians who are currently struggling financially had such issues before the pandemic. Due to government measures to prevent the spreading of COVID-19, a new demographic of Canadians (with a 9.7 per cent and 7.6 per cent unemployment rate in 2020 and 2021 according to the Alberta Government) has found themselves unable to work. This means that they have lower job security and are subsequently unable to predict their future wages.

Although this group does not necessarily struggle to obtain necessities due to pre-pandemic savings, they are still experiencing stress from being unable to predict their income on a month-to-month basis.

According to research that Dr. Bierman conducted on The Great Recession before the current pandemic, financial stress has potent detrimental effects on psychological well-being. He explained that the Great Recession caused high rates of financial malaise, which subsequently led to stress reactions such as sleep problems among middle-aged people in the United States.

In addition to sleep problems, Dr. Bierman found that there were other significant outcomes for overall mental wellness. His analyses of Canadian workers showed that increasing financial stress was associated not only with increased irritability but also with symptoms of depression and anxiety.


Depression can feel overwhelming. Photo by nikko maspac, Unsplash, CC0


The loneliness of digital connection

The second major source of stress mentioned by Dr. Bierman is social isolation. Science shows that humans are social creatures who require connections with other people. For many during the pandemic, applications such as Zoom or Skype are the only way to connect with friends and family. However, these video applications do not satisfy the need for physical touch and interaction. While remote connections do allow for socializing, for some, they are not an adequate substitute for in-person interaction.

Dr. Bierman’s research shows that a precipitous increase in isolation during the pandemic was associated with heightened psychological distress. These increased feelings of loneliness were directly associated with a lowered sense of well-being.

“Even right after the [survey] output in March 2020, our data – when we compared our sample of working Canadians in September 2019 – we were observing an increase in social isolation,” Dr. Bierman states. He expects to find additional increases in feelings of social isolation as pandemic isolation measures continue.

How to cope with social and financial distress?

Though low-income Canadians continue to struggle with the pandemic, there are still ways to cope. One way to do so is to engage in activities that help maintain one’s sense of self-esteem. “Stress research has demonstrated that people who feel in control of their lives generally feel a higher sense of self-worth, which gives them the confidence to address problems they encounter in life. Dr. Bierman suggests that engaging in activities that bolster personal agency (such as aerobic exercise and healthy eating) can be powerful coping mechanisms during a tumultuous event such as a pandemic.


Selfcare is critical to managing chronic stress. Photo by Jared Rice, Unsplash, CC0

In addition, the enforcement of social isolation measures along with economic deprivation makes it more difficult for Canadians to be involved in reciprocal activities (spending time with other people in social settings, paying for someone’s coffee, etc.). Such activities are a key component of social relationships. Luckily, social relationships are not solely built on engaging in reciprocal acts of financial exchange. Participating in any activities that bind people together fosters social relationships. During social isolation measures, engaging in activities that allow people to experience personal agency and supplementing them with online interactions are good ways to cope with pandemic stress.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has especially heightened stress for Canadians experiencing economic uncertainty. Social isolation and financial distress are equally powerful factors affecting health and overall well-being. Prolonged stress has been shown to be particularly detrimental to physical and mental well-being. Ongoing financial instability and a lack of social connection may contribute to a decline in physical health along with increased feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety.

A key component to mitigating psychological distress is to engage in meaningful social relationships. Feeling a sense of belonging improves well-being due to the perception that others will be available to help during times of crisis. This sense of togetherness diminishes the impact of other life stressors.

“Social relationships like these bring positive influences into our well-being and can proliferate to other aspects of our life,” Dr. Bierman says. Overall, financial stress and mental health are not solely individual issues, they often also reflect the problems with social inequality in Canada.


A big thank you to Dr. Alex Bierman for taking the time to chat with us about this dire issue!

Feature image: Stress can be an overwhelming feeling. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CCO

Share this: