It has been months of stress and uncertainty. If you are anything like me, you are pining for normality. Spring is only a few weeks away, but the end of the pandemic is not. Months of coping with a rollercoaster of emotions sparked by the stressors of quarantine, self-isolation, social-distancing, lock-downs, losses, grief, uncertainty, unpredictability and anxiety are taking a toll on our mental health. Pandemic Fatigue is not an official medical term, as yet, however, it does describe the impact that COVID-19 stressors are having on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So what are some of the signs you may have Pandemic Fatigue?
Signs of pandemic fatigue
- From being a super diligent face mask wearer and always washing your hands, you find yourself dodging those sanitiser bottles or holding your breath when passing people in the hope of not breathing in any stray viral-ladened spittle missiles.
- Where social distancing was part of the new normal, you find yourself leaning into conversations at the coffee shop and going in for the hug.
- As much as you sleep, you still feel exhausted. Napping during the workday is also not helping nor are those sleeping tablets that you borrowed from your best mate a few months ago.
- You are feeling less patient and more irritated, snapping at those close to you like a chihuahua.
- You are feeling stressed by things that you ordinarily would take in your stride.
- You are getting more upset and emotional about the little things that previously wouldn’t have raised your heart rate.
- You are feeling more hopeless about the future, and there seems to be no light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
- You are eating more food, drinking more alcohol because what else is there to do and perhaps using more substances than usual.
- Your brain feels foggy and concentrating takes a significant effort, particularly if it has anything to do with your work to-do list, house chores, gym rosters and remembering to go shopping.
Our stress response is switched on 24/7
I know my attempt as humour needs work, however on a more serious note, if you said ‘that’s me’ to one or more of the above, you may just be feeling Pandemic Fatigue. Totally normal, understandable and expected. Our bodies were never designed to be ‘switched on’ in this stress mode for months on end.
Back in caveman days, our stress or survival response was triggered for only short bursts to get us out of danger and save us from the sabre-toothed tiger. It was never designed to be switched on 24/7! Our physiological stress response has been activated for a while now, and we are running out of energy. What we need are strategies to manage our Fatigue physically, mentally and emotionally. So what can you do to help minimise the impact of Pandemic Fatigue?
Some suggestions on how to get back on track
Protect yourself and others. Wearing masks, washing our hands, and social distancing is making a massive difference when it comes to community spread. We hear this from all the experts on TV almost nightly. Put your masks on people! Remind yourself that by doing these necessary things, you are taking control of this otherwise uncertain environment. This in turn will make you feel more hopeful as you will start feeling that you, your family and community will stay safer.
Clean up your sleep. Have a look at your sleep routine and try and maximise the quality and quantity of slow-wave and REM sleep, so that you can re-energise your brain and sort out those folders of new information that you have learnt that day. Remember the data is clear that consistency of sleep, i.e. the time you go to sleep and wake up every day, is the most effective way to get better quality sleep.
Also sleeping in a quiet and dark room, with a temperature of between 21-23 degrees Celsius makes for an ideal sleep environment. We know that 75% of insomnia is caused by stress and stress, in turn, causes insomnia! So focusing on your sleep and general wellbeing is a no brainer if you want to get through the next few months and curb this vicious cycle.
Push the pause button when emotional. When your brain switches into survival mode, your emotional part of your brain is in the driver’s seat. So feeling more sensitive and fragile is normal. If you find yourself cranky at the moment, and your emotions are getting the better of you, push the pause button and try and remove yourself from the situation or conversation.
Taking a few deep breaths also sends the message to your brain that you are calm and therefore must be safe. So the stress response switches down a gear, or two. Once you are feeling less emotional, then tackle the conversation or situation using your wonderfully developed pre-frontal cortex or thinking brain. Responding with thought versus reacting with emotion is vital.
Get active without a major sweat. Choose activities that you enjoy but have perhaps let slide recently. Replace walking around the block and then kicking it under the bed, with a real walk in the fresh air and on the pavement! Exercise is fantastic for stress management, and the best part is you don’t need to be running on a treadmill at speed 15. Walking at a moderate pace 3-4 times a week has been shown to have a significant impact on our stress levels. If you are walking and talking and feeling a bit puffed out, researchers say you are walking too fast.
Nurture your creativity. Engaging in activities you used to enjoy is an excellent way to feel a sense of normalcy and reconnect to your sense-of-self. It can also be a good de-stressor that will improve your concentration and focus. Maybe pick up that project at home that you’ve been putting aside for a rainy day.
Perhaps a hobby that you used to spend lots of time doing and brought you enjoyment. Get those creative juices flowing. And if you have no idea what I am banging on about, watch a funny movie that gets you laughing like there is no tomorrow. We know from research that laughter increases our naturally produced happy chemicals, including endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin.
Connection is everything. Connecting with others is super important. I know I have said this so many times in the articles I have written; however, research has proven time and time again that we are DNA wired to connect and connection is crucial for good mental health. We prioritise connecting with our tribe above all else, even having a voice in the tribe. As humans, we crave belonging. So for those introverts who are reading this, remember that connecting with a friend or a family member gets that wonderful connection hormone oxytocin to levels that can truly make you feel happy and loved.
Be clear on what you need from others. Be honest with people that you are close to if you are struggling with negative feelings. Many of us are feeling pretty crappy at the moment and are frankly quite tired of this viral environment. Merely wanting to be ‘normal’ again seems a tough ask. Often sharing how are you feeling with someone that can hold the space for you can be the difference between feeling really lonely and feeling uplifted and supported.
To get the support you need, let the other person know what it is that you want and need from them. If it is merely to be a listening ear, ask them for this. If it is advice you are after, make this clear too. There is nothing more frustrating than sharing how you feel with someone who then promptly goes into solution mode and starts providing unsolicited advice. I have no doubt the intention is well-meaning, however by and large it is not helpful in the moment. So stand your ground, be clear and ask for the support you need.
No more mind-reading. If you wake up feeling a bit irritable and impatient, let your close loved ones into the secret. They are not mind-readers. Knowing that you’re not quite yourself and you’re feeling a bit sad, frustrated or cranky helps them understand if you don’t want to talk, or if perhaps you respond in a sharper way than usual. This doesn’t mean that you treat your family like a punching bag metaphorically. You still need to manage your emotions as best as you can and of course, are responsible for your behaviour. This is not a chance to revert back to childlike behaviours and start throwing your toys out of the cot.
Protecting your relationships and those closest to you is very important. Having more intimate connections with others who better understand you will help nourish you emotionally and help protect you against those stresses and challenging circumstances that are often out of our control.
Reach out if you are feeling lonely. For those who live alone or do not have a family or friend support structure around them, please remember that there are places you can go for support and help. Australia offers some amazing online support and resources. Lifeline (13 11 14) is just one of many who are available 24/7 and are qualified to provide you with the help you need.
No one knows precisely when this pandemic will end. The news is currently rife with information on developing vaccines and that perhaps by early next year, we will have access to this vital resource. The head of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said only last night on the news that it would take around two years for the world to get back to a healthy state. Two years, what is he thinking? However, the reality is it may very well take this long for the world to settle.
And when you are having one of those days, focus on what you can be grateful for. I keep on pinching myself that I live in Australia. Things could be so much worse. I am grateful every day that my family are okay, and I can put my running shoes on and go for a walk under the glorious sunshine. Many others don’t have this luxury and have suffered unimaginable losses. It is this fact that keeps me moving forward and hopeful that this pandemic too will come to an end.