Within the past couple of weeks, many of us have been slammed with major pandemic fatigue. We’re burnt out. We’re expected to be productive at work or to parent (or oftentimes both) as though we haven’t been living in hell for the last year. The winter has been bleak and could potentially get bleaker. And even though the vaccines are bringing us some much-needed hope, our feelings of exhaustion and hopelessness are swallowing any positive emotions whole.
It makes sense. We’ve been at this for a year now, and our fight-or-flight system ― the emotional reaction to stress that has been otherwise energizing us throughout the pandemic ― is now totally overloaded. When that happens, the constant flow of adrenaline starts to drain and apathy settles in. It seems that we’ve all gone over that tipping point.
Feeling emotionally zapped, especially in this stage the coronavirus crisis, is very normal, mental health experts say.
If you find yourself stuck in a pandemic-fueled rut, first take a moment to pause and acknowledge your feelings. Go easy on yourself as you sit with these dismal emotions — the pandemic’s been brutal, and it’s time we all cut ourselves a break.
The pandemic has over-activated our stress system.
When we experience a stressful event (like, say, literally any and everything that’s happened during the past year), our brain sends a burst of energy through our body that enables us to respond to nearby threats.
Typically, the brain and body calm down and rest once the stressor is removed. Throughout the pandemic, however, we’ve been exposed to so many stressors that our system hasn’t been able to catch a break. Cortisol is just pumping through our bodies at rates we haven’t had to contend with before.
When our fight-or-flight system has been totally overworked like that, even little things that might not have bothered us before can get to us, explained Amy Cirbus, a licensed mental health counselor in New York and the director of clinical content at Talkspace. Eventually, those feelings build up and can become emotionally exhausting.
“We’re at more risk for burnout because of the circumstances and because of the fact that we’re continually re-traumatized and [reactivating] that cortisol spike,” Cirbus said.
“We’re at more risk for burnout because of the circumstances and because of the fact that we’re continually re-traumatized and [reactivating] that cortisol spike.”
– Amy Cirbus
Uncertainty also plays a huge role in hitting this wall.
Jessica Gold, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, said it can be difficult to process the fact that we’ve been at this for essentially a year now and there’s still no clear end in sight.
Every measure or milestone we’ve reached — like the one-year mark of when we first heard about COVID-19 — makes us more aware of how long we’ve been enduring the pandemic and the uncertainty of how much longer it’ll last.
Even now that there’s promising news about the vaccines, any optimism may be shielded by a layer of doubt and pessimism since so many things have gone wrong, Gold explained.
“People are afraid of getting their hopes up in some capacity because there are so many ways to be let down, and overall, it’s been disappointing in a lot of ways,” Gold said.
How can we get through this period?
It’s normal for burnout to occur after a period of chronic stress and uncertainty. Emotional endurance dwindles over time, and given the nature of the pandemic, we don’t have the same sense of security we could fall back on during pre-pandemic times. Those traditional outlets — the gym, a vacation, going out with friends, visiting family — aren’t necessarily options right now.
Most of us have had to learn new ways to cope with everyday stress since our usual coping skills may not be working.
Cirbus advises her patients to first identify the things stressing them out the most — maybe it’s the news, a job, or toxic convos with a friend — and make a plan to address them and set some healthy boundaries. From there, she recommends focusing on one or two things a day that you can accomplish.
“It’s the accumulation of those small things over the course of time that are going to make a difference. They do add up,” she said. Gradually, things will change and you’ll eventually feel like you can walk through that wall again.
It might also be a good time to work with a therapist if you don’t have pandemic-friendly coping skills or if what you’ve been doing the last few months isn’t working for you now. A mental health professional can provide you with specific techniques that work with your life. (A tip from Gold: Don’t rely on what works for other people; try on different things and figure out what brings you some relief.) Of course, mental health care is incredibly expensive; if it’s a financial burden, try looking into some affordable or free resources that can help.
Lastly, cut yourself some slack. No matter how the pandemic has disrupted your life, recognize that this is hard and that hitting a wall is a completely valid response to totally irregular circumstances.
“Have compassion for yourself and don’t belittle your feelings,” Gold said. “At a certain point, we’ll all get through it.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.