PANDEMIC FATIGUE AND BURNOUT
Have you found yourself ‘doom scrolling’ at the expense of your to-do list? Or what about the dread, fear, hopelessness, and exhaustion that you’ve felt more in the past year than in the previous ones combined? Maybe you’ve reminded yourself of your privileges (health, safety, employment, etc.) but remained incapable of ‘changing the emotional channel’. If so, it is possible you –along with many other people– are experiencing a degree of pandemic burnout.
Psychologists define burnout as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Prior to the pandemic, burnout was normally used in reference to chronic job stress and associated with cynicism and reduced professional ability. In the last year, the term “pandemic burnout” (or fatigue) has become increasingly applied to a collective sense of exhaustion as a result of an ongoing global pandemic— one which has inflicted an unprecedented level of loss and forced adjustment. Each person may have different reasons for their exhaustion, including but not limited to unemployment, caretaking, remote work, isolation, and civic and racial unrest. No matter the source, the impact of having to navigate such ongoing difficulties is significant. It can make you feel emotionally drained, it can decrease your motivation and result in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, ultimately hindering your ability to function in the context of many aspects of daily life.
So how do you know if you are dealing with pandemic burnout? Here are some signs to look out for:
- Diminished efficiency (i.e., taking twice as long to finish a task)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in your sleep and appetite
- Physical symptoms: headaches, stomachaches, intestinal issues
- Irritability/ decreased patience and empathy
Once you have established that this is the case, what now?
- Create a balanced routine. This is important in helping you muster a sense of agency and preparedness. Schedule in your obligations but make sure to offset them with activities that bring you a sense of joy, pleasure, fulfillment. This could include hobbies, physical exercise, time with loved ones, creative projects, etc.
- Stay connected in any way that you can. If you are one of many experiencing Zoom fatigue, figure out other ways to stay in touch with loved ones. Write emails or letters, give your friends a phone call while on a walk, respond to social media posts, share a meme/song/article with a friend. Get creative! The important thing is that you are proactively countering isolation with connection.
- Regulate news consumption. Whether this means deleting apps from your phone, employing regulatory settings, or delineating limits (e.g., no news/social media after dinner), learn to approach your news consumption with intentionality, and to identify signs of when the feelings become too overwhelming (e.g., increased heart rate, racing thoughts, lightheadedness).
- Learn to distinguish between avoidance and healthy distraction. It’s understandable that you have been Netflixing way more often than usual. But before you turn on that episode, check in with yourself: “Have I done all that I wanted to do? Is there something I am avoiding doing here?”. Use that episode as a reward for finishing your tasks, and then you get to indulge on that show guilt-free.
- Stop catastrophizing and better tolerate uncertainty. When you find yourself catastrophizing about what could happen, take a step back. Ask yourself, “Is there anything I can do about this at this moment?” If the answer is yes- go for it! If the answer is no, practice letting go. Write that thought down on a sheet of paper and toss it. Imagine putting that thought on a cloud and watching it float away. The important thing is that you are disengaging from futile thought spirals and redirecting your attention to something else.
- Practice stillness and mindful monotasking. If you are acquainted with something like mindfulness meditation, dive deeper into it. If not, there are some great apps out there that are particularly useful for beginners (HeadSpace, Calm, and Waking Up). And if meditation is not your jam, task yourself with doing one daily activity mindfully and deliberately (e.g., brushing your teeth, taking a shower, doing the dishes). This can help you remain present in the moment, and helps combat our mind’s tendencies to dwell, catastrophize, worry, etc.
Above all, I encourage you to seek out activities, relationships, and spaces that bring you joy. Whether it’s someone who makes you feel seen, or an online community that makes you feel less alone, or an afternoon stroll that gets you outside—make sure you are filling your day with things that nourish you. And if you are having difficulty identifying or following through, therapy can be a great place to turn to for support.
Elizabeth Scott, M. (2020, March 20). How to Watch for Signs of Burnout in Your Life. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/stress-and-burnout-symptoms-and-causes
Queen, D., & Harding, K. (2020). Societal pandemic burnout: A COVID legacy. Int Wound J, 17(4), 873-874.