Pandemic exhaustion is different from just feeling tired. Here’s what to do about it. | Elizabeth Wellington
Never before have Americans been so physically and emotionally tired at the same time. Together this creates an endless loop of fatigue. Here's what you can do about it.
I don’t know about you, but as we inch toward what might finally be the end of lockdown, I’m just plain pooped. I feel like I’m approaching the end of a marathon, but instead of catching my second wind, I want to lie down in defeat.
I’m not by myself, says Lynette Luckers, interim department head of counseling at Community College of Philadelphia. “We are all mentally, physically, and emotionally over this,” Luckers said. “The exhaustion is real and so is the fatigue. We are all so tired, but we have no choice. We have to keep on going.”
How can we persevere if we feel like we’re on our last leg? We can, if we keep a few things in mind.
COVID-19 wall vs. COVID-19 exhaustion
Hitting the COVID-19 wall hurt back in the late summer and early fall, but we were able to keep on keepin’ on because we still believed that — although it may take some time — things would eventually get back to normal. So much has changed since then. More than half a million people have died in the United States. There are now COVID-19 variants. And even now, as thousands of people are vaccinated each day, masks are still a part of our foreseeable future. Schools are reopening, but for how long?
Other differences between hitting the wall and being flat out over it? We are even more bored. We are busier. And we are completely Zoomed out. We are still operating in hyperarousal mode, Luckers said. “We want to know what’s going to happen next, but, at the same time, we are doing the same thing over and over and over again; that, in itself, is exhausting,” Luckers said.
We aren’t just over it. We are also more tired physically as we cram more tasks into days that feel longer yet fly by. Our eating habits are off. Our sleeping habits are off. And as we collectively fight the urge to doze, we lost an hour of sleep thanks to daylight saving time. Some who have survived the virus suffer from low energy for months on end. Many of us who are lucky enough to have been vaccinated report feeling tired.
But there’s a difference between feeling tired and feeling exhausted. “Tired is a state, but exhaustion is a trait,” Luckers said. “Together they create this endless loop of fatigue.”
It’s no wonder we feel worn out right down to our bones.
Deal with the sleepiness first
There are two kinds of sleepiness, explained David Raizen, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, who specializes in sleep disorders and fatigue. The first is normal sleepiness and that can be remedied with more shut-eye. There is also pathological sleepiness — tiredness that derives from an illness like, perhaps, COVID-19 — that no amount of sleep can make better. If you suspect you are suffering from an underlying illness, Raizen said, now is the time to make that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off.
There is no question that our COVID-19 lifestyles have impacted our sleep, Raizen said. “We are staying up too late, not eating well, spending too much time online,” Raizen said. You can make simple fixes here: Stop staying up late channel surfing, keep a consistent bedtime, stop scrolling an hour before going to sleep, eat a balanced diet, and minimize naps.
Feeling tired vs fatigued
Many of us, however, aren’t getting enough rest because we are anxious. “Not sleeping because we suffer from anxiety and its close cousin, depression, feed into each other,” Luckers said. “It can be hard to separate the two.” If you’ve been cleared by a medical doctor and you still wake up feeling tired, then your exhaustion is likely mental — which is fatigue.
“Most of us are in some state of exhaustion or fatigue,” said Shawn Blue, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Jefferson University Hospital. “We feel stuck. We are pooped, and no amount of sleep can help.”
The tricky part is that we are dealing with different kinds of exhaustion. Here are tips to help us to push through:
What it is: No matter how much you try to concentrate, your brain jumps from idea to idea. And frankly, you find it hard to sit still for long periods of time. You have a lot of projects on tap, lots of ideas simmering, but little to no motivation to get anything done.
What you can do about it: Try to stick to a schedule. But give yourself a lot of breaks. Sitting at your computer for hours on end doesn’t allow your brain to unwind, said Jaime Zuckerman, an Ardmore-based clinical psychologist. Now that the weather is breaking, go outside and take a walk. Start a garden. “Walking activates the positive chemicals in our brain. And when you return back to your task, you will feel better. The fog will be lifted, and you will be better able to focus.”
What it is: You are tired of worrying all of the time. Will you get this vaccine? How long will you keep your job? The worst case-scenarios roll around freely in your brain. As a result, you just don’t want to do anything. You feel stuck. Some days it’s hard to get out of bed. If only you felt better.
What you can do about it: Stop waiting to feel better. In other words: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. “Do what you need to do,” Zuckerman said. “If you wait to feel better, you will never get anything done.” If a task seems too big, take small steps. Checking things off your list will give you a sense of accomplishment, alleviate the anxiety, and allow you to rest better in your off hours. You won’t be able to help but feel better.
What it is: On one hand, you miss seeing your friends in person. On the other, you are tired of seeing them on social media, but you can’t seem to put the phone down. How else can you stay in touch? You may not even be “free” after you are vaccinated.
What you can do about it: “Stop relying on technology to maintain friendships and make plans to meet friends,” Blue said. Make sure you follow the social-distancing guidelines. But, Blue said, it’s also important you make sure you manage your expectations. “Enjoy the weather. Enjoy your friends, but don’t over do it, it’s important that we don’t do too much too fast so we don’t undo the progress.”
What it is: You are completely and totally talked out. The back-to-back meetings have left your brain scrambled. You spend more of your days meeting than working.
What you can do about it: This fatigue comes from sensory overload, said Cynthia Watson, CEO of the Canadian-based virtual consulting company, Virtira. “We asked 1,700 people about Zoom and found that 49 percent are exhausted by the camera,” Watson said. “It’s always on so we have to feel like we are always on,” Watson said. Sometimes we are more focused on what we look like and how we come across than what people are saying. The best advice: When creating your calendar, pick a block of time that is Zoom-call-free. “There are some meetings that you don’t have to attend,” Watson said. “There are others you can turn the camera off. Be mindful of your time and attend meetings accordingly.”
Cynthia Watson, CEO of Canadian-based virtual consulting company, Virtira
Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., Ardmore-based clinical psychologist