Pandemic Anxiety and Fatigue
Since March 2020, people across the globe have lived in a heightened state of anxiety. We had to adapt to dramatic changes overnight, and now, after several weeks into the pandemic, the reality has sunk in. We are tired. Some of us have lost jobs or shut down our businesses, and gone into debt. Others have settled into a work routine from home, which may also include looking after children full time. Maybe you fell ill yourself, or tragically lost a loved one. And let’s not forget other losses, like vacations, weddings, and milestone graduations without family and friends. There is much to grieve and you are not alone if you’re experiencing pandemic burnout, anxiety and fatigue.
What is Anxiety?
In evolutionary terms, anxiety is a survival mechanism used by mammals to react to or escape from imminent danger. This sympathetic nervous system triggers the flight-or-fight response, preparing the body for intense physical activity. It is a natural alarm system that allows us to size up potential threats so we can either run from them or react to them. Anxiety directs us during emergencies like the sounding of a smoke detector during a fire. It helps us to survive.
In practical terms, however, people use words like fear, apprehension, angst, alarm or even uneasiness to describe anxiety. Everyone experiences it and for the most part, it is a helpful response. For example, since the pandemic started, you may feel anxious performing routine chores like grocery shopping. This emotion is healthy and normal. The risk of exposure to the virus poses a legitimate threat. Consequently, fear motivates you to wear a mask and wash your hands. However, anxiety and fatigue become problematic when you obsess about the virus and become paralyzed to a point where you can longer function normally.
COVID-19 Phase 2: Anxiety and Fatigue
Things were relatively manageable when everyone hunkered down together in quarantine. As better weather arrives, and our government opens economic activities in phases, people are emerging from lockdown. For weeks now, our brains became conditioned to viewing social activities as unsafe. We safely pivoted to socializing virtually through Zoom and Facetime. And some of us have become comfortable engaging with small bubbles of socially-distanced connections. We now accept that shaking hands and hugging anyone outside our bubble is socially inappropriate. We have even come to normalize wearing masks and protecting ourselves with physical distancing in public places.
Phases 2 and 3 of the economic opening promises to bring more changes, requiring us to adapt once again. Those suffering from social anxiety might have welcomed the temporary reprieve from social connections. However, a quarantine lifestyle is incredibly restrictive, even for them. While some of us might welcome getting back to work and life, it could send anxiety responses into overdrive for others. Now, many of us will worry about how to safely protect ourselves as we transition to daily commutes and work routines. It is important to acknowledge the anxiety and fatigue that may arrive as we collectively shift gears over the next few weeks.
Pandemic Fatigue & The Grey Zone
In Ontario, we appear to be in a “grey zone” where infection rates are lower and manageable for our health care system. Yet we are not in the clear. After all, the virus is still out there, and the threat of a second wave of infections is quite real. There is a new bout of uneasiness in the air.
With it, the sustained anxiety many people were experiencing over the last few months may now be morphing into what experts are dubbing, “pandemic fatigue.” Many of us are simply exhausted emotionally because we were treating the pandemic like a sprint, expecting the end date to arrive in the summer. And we now realize it’s a marathon. We have a new mental load of decisions to make with things we did not give a second thought to before. Thoughts like, “How long will the lines-up be at the grocery store?“, or “Did I remember to take my mask and hand sanitizer?“, represent grey zones of uncertainty, and they are a legitimate energy drain.
If your anxiety and fatigue have brought you to a breaking point, then you are not alone. We encourage everyone to perform a mental health self-check-in. A healthy mind has a direct bearing on your wellness. You will require all your coping reserves to get through this, however long it may take.
Managing Anxiety and Fatigue
The good news is that we can readily manage symptoms of anxiety and fatigue by focusing on self-care and implementing lifestyle changes. This includes relaxation techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which behaves contrary to the sympathetic nervous system described above. It inhibits high energy functions to help the body relax. Tapping into it regularly will help lower your baseline stress levels and increase your coping reserves to carry you through the long haul of the pandemic.
In addition, your mindset matters. If you are prone to worst-case scenarios, then you may be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Intrusive “what if ” racing thoughts can result in disruptive sleep that will exacerbate your anxiety. In this event, consider a few sessions with a trained therapist who can help you with introspection, self-reflection and thought redirection techniques to help reduce your anxiety symptoms to manageable levels.
Anyone struggling with anxiety spectrum disorders such as social anxiety, agoraphobia, hypochondriasis (health anxiety) or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may require professional intervention if the pandemic has made your symptoms worse. Contact your physician to review any medications you are taking. He or she may shore up your treatment plan with evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to challenge and reframe irrational fears that might be triggering your anxiety disorder.
An unintended consequence of the pandemic is that it has locked families up in homes, without an outlet, for an extended period of time. In many households, this has sparked problems of every kind, from arguments about household chores, angry debates about how to manage the kids and frustrations about stretched budgets and unmanageable debt.
When it comes to stress management, we often overlook the power of play. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play writes, “Play is art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting and daydreaming.” Play may not seem purposeful but it can boost mood and creativity, and impart stress-relief. Dr. Brown describes it as experiential and process-oriented rather than goal-oriented. To get started, give yourself permission to play, and with it, you will increase the opportunity to play. Reconnecting with your childhood memories to discover what excited you as a child will allow you to introduce dance, music or drawing back into your life. Engaging in the activity together as a couple can enhance your connection with each other.
If your relationship with your partner was not at its best before the pandemic began, then you may be at a breaking point with anxiety symptoms. Alleviating your stress requires you to address the source of the problem. Consider engaging a trained couples’ therapist to help you work through your issues.
Identifying Your Triggers
As you start participating in the economy and widening your social circle, it is very important to identify what triggers your anxiety. Sometimes, this introspective exercise is easier done with a trusted therapist. Once you understand this, then you can modulate your life to set boundaries that make you feel safe and comfortable. If you are not ready to attend backyard barbeques with socially gregarious friends, then declining politely is perfectly alright. After all, shifting gears once again is hard for many people suffering from pandemic anxiety and fatigue. Your self-care should include time to adjust to a routine, that feels right for you.
Some of us may continue to work remotely, but others may have to return to a workplace, with new rules in place. Workplaces are bound by law to keep the worksite safe for employees. If you feel unsafe at any point, ensure you follow your workplace protocols and communicate your concerns clearly with your supervisor.
You might even encounter contradictory feelings that leave you confused. On one hand, you may just want to let go and be “free,” like you were before the pandemic. On the other hand, you may feel terrified of letting your guard down and catching the virus. Polarizing moments like this can teeter you towards anxiety. Remember to cut yourself some slack during these moments. Self-compassion practices can help you navigate to a middle ground. Start by acknowledging that your feelings are valid and acceptable. Typically, this will help to make the emotions less intense. And remember that you are not alone; it is difficult for anyone to quickly shift gears in the midst of pandemic anxiety and fatigue. It is okay to give yourself the adjustment time you need to gradually resume your life activities.
About The Author
We have helped hundreds of individuals manage their anxiety symptoms through a blend of psychotherapy treatments. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.