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Pandemic Fatigue: What is It and How to Fight It

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Author name: Lee Health

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Pandemic fatigue graphic

A new year beckoned with fresh hopes and energized desires … and another COVID-19 surge. We were tired, miserable, short-tempered, and discouraged even before the highly contagious Omicron variant began buzz-sawing through our lives.

When will it all end? Although things are looking up, and more mask restrictions are currently being lifted, experts say the virus is likely to remain in circulation for years. As a nation, we have our head in our hands, leading mental health officials to worry we’re suffering from “pandemic fatigue.”

Psychotherapist David Contos, LCSW, Lee Health Behavioral Health, says pandemic fatigue is a form of psychological exhaustion that can lead to a lapse in the behaviors that help protect us from infection from COVID-19.

Contos walks us through what pandemic fatigue is, and how we can increase our resilience to better protect ourselves and our families.

What is pandemic fatigue?

“For the last two years, we’ve been in a near-constant state of flux, struggling to adapt to successive waves of COVID-19 variants, sobering statistics, shifting government guidelines, political polarization, and media sensationalism,” Contos notes. “We’ve used lockdowns, social distancing, face coverings, vaccinations and booster shots; we’ve sacrificed holidays and other social gatherings with family and friends in the hopes of getting to whatever our ‘new normal’ might look like.

“Our minds can only tolerate so much change. After two years of increased stress across the board, some of us are throwing our hands up and saying, ‘I’m done.’”

Constant stress can wear a person down physically and mentally, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

For two years, the pandemic and related societal upheavals (the political divides and other political and worldwide situations such as Ukraine, for example) have continually flooded our bodies with stress hormones like cortisol, which accelerates our heart rate, tenses our muscles, and increases inflammation in our bodies.

Our central nervous system, seemingly always on high alert, eventually wears down, affecting our physical and mental health.

According to an APA survey, people reported being stressed by the future of the United States (81%); the coronavirus pandemic (80%); and political unrest (74%).

Signs of pandemic fatigue

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined “pandemic fatigue” as “feeling demotivated about following recommended behaviors to protect ourselves and others from the virus.” Signs of pandemic fatigue can include:

  • Disregarding public health recommendations for vaccinations and booster shots
  • Ignoring safety recommendations, such as wearing masks, washing hands, practicing proper hygiene etiquette and social distancing
  • Losing interest in keeping informed about the pandemic
  • Having lower risk perceptions related to COVID-19
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Consuming more alcohol/food/substances than previously

Tuning Out to Stress

In response to all that stress, understandably, people began to “tune out,” a behavior that partly describes pandemic fatigue, Contos says.

“Tuning out is similar to denial, which is a common response to grief. It’s a defense designed to reduce psychological pressure so that we can continue operating despite overwhelming stress,” Contos notes.

He says “tuning out” shows up as questions such as, “Why should I worry about infection? Why should I keep washing my hands? Why should I social distance?”

In sum, “Why should I even care?”

Contos recommends finding a “middle ground” of thinking and behaving that will keep you from reaching a mindset of hopelessness.

So, what must we do?

Putting together an action plan—speaking with a therapist, safely socializing with friends, taking moments for mindfulness—can help us increase our motivation as well as boost resilience.

Contos suggests adding items below to your personal action plan.

Identifying Emotions

Contos notes, “Our emotions so often drive the bus, so to speak. It’s not an issue if we’re conscious of our emotions. It’s when we ignore these sometimes hidden motivators that we end up wandering away from the things which are most important to us.”

One approach to uncovering and identifying our emotions is to find an “emotions list” online and practice naming your emotions at different points in the day. Admitting that you’re feeling helpless, annoyed, violated, discouraged or burned-out will improve your ability to respond to your emotions instead of reacting to them, he notes.

"Pausing to identify and name a specific emotion can help you create distance from the feeling,” he says. “This distance allows you to evaluate the feeling and find ways to work through it, such as meditating or breathing exercises.”  

Focus on what is within your control

Contos says much of what’s going on in the world is really outside of our direct control, but our minds continue to create thoughts and beliefs as if thinking alone could effect meaningful change in our environment.

“By identifying what is within our direct control vs. what lies outside of our control, we quiet the mind by engaging the executive parts of the brain in charge of logic and reasoning,” he says. “We also help discharge nervous energy in a more productive way by focusing on what we can do and not on what others ‘should’ be doing, which is not only more effective but generally more pleasant as well.”

Stay connected with loved ones

Contos says staying connected with family and friends can benefit your emotional well-being and mental health.

“Large indoor gatherings are still not recommended, of course,” Contos cautions. “But if people in your circle are fully vaccinated, getting together in smaller groups while following the CDC’s safety guidelines is a way to stay connected.” “Social distancing and face coverings continue to enhance safety for when people choose not to vaccinate.”

If you can’t see your family or friends in person, texting, calling, and video-conferencing with them have become tried and true ways for a number of us to connect

Avoid or limit alcohol

In the early weeks of the pandemic lockdown, the WHO issued an advisory warning about the dangers of overconsuming alcohol. The organization said drinking alcohol could increase the risk of getting COVID-19 and make it worse. It also can lead to risk-taking behaviors, violence and mental health issues, Contos adds.

“You might drink to lift your spirits, but eventually alcohol has the opposite effect on your body and mood,” Contos says. “It’s a depressant, especially if used in excess. Limiting alcohol intake rather than overindulging in times of stress is the wise choice in many cases.  For those in crisis or struggling with addiction, abstaining may be a safer option.” An informed counselor/therapist can help you explore this in a safe, nonjudgmental way.

Practice Self-Care

Contos says practicing self-care remains key to avoiding or lessening the dispiriting effects of disaster fatigue. He suggests the following can do a body—and mind—good.

Cut the sugar. During the pandemic, consumers have binged on less-than-healthy foods to comfort themselves, leading to the joke, “Shelter-in-place measures have been extended for another 15 pounds.”

Contos suggests limiting refined sugar intake by decreasing processed snack foods and soft drinks and increasing our intake of fresh fruits, vegetables and water. Studies suggest added sugar can trigger metabolic, inflammatory and neurobiological processes tied to depressive illness inflammation. Instead, try to find creative ways to satisfy the appetites in your home

Exercise. Find an activity that appeals to you. “When we find a physical activity we like doing, we’re liable to stick with it,” Contos says.  There are a number of online and outdoor classes available.  Many video game systems, such as Oculus Quest, have fitness games that make moving fun for those of us who need additional motivation.

Yoga. This classic de-stressor practice helps us relax in a stressful world, relieves irksome pain and generally helps us feel better.

Meditation. The ancient, soothing practice can be practiced by newcomers and anyone else. No experience is required, and you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to start. 

“Netflix currently has a series titled ‘Headspace, Guide to Meditation,’ which some of my patients have found helpful,” Contos adds. He notes apps such as “Stop, Breathe, Think,” “Headspace” and “Insight Timer” also come recommended.

Sleep health. Our bodies release hormones during sleep that help repair cells and control its use of energy. During times of stress, proper sleep hygiene is essential to our well-being.

Reach out today

If the effects of pandemic fatigue are affecting your ability to perform day-to-day activities for more than just a few consecutive days, contact a Lee Health Behavioral Health specialist. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 239-343-9180.

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