Are you feeling exhausted, anxious or sad? 5 tips for handling ‘pandemic fatigue.’

Oct. 30, 2020
Pandemic fatigue is rampant now. Here a young woman looks exhaused as she holds her baby and looks at a laptop.
Pandemic fatigue is rampant among young and old alike. Photo: Getty Images.

Pandemic fatigue is gripping many of us.

Earlier this year, when we first heard that a new deadly virus was spreading around the world, we went on high alert. We stocked up. We isolated ourselves at home. Sure, that was tough. But, it was new, so we found ways to cope. Then, little by little, our communities opened up. Long days and warmer weather over the summer made it easier to handle our new COVID-19 reality.

But now, COVID-19 infections are surging again, mornings and evenings are darker and many of us have had enough.

If you are sick and tired of worrying about COVID-19, you’re probably suffering from pandemic fatigue, and you are not alone. While we all need to follow new, stricter public health guidelines to help drive down COVID-19 infections, we also need to find ways to take care of our mental health.

Psychologist Justin Ross said pandemic fatigue is affecting a large majority of his patients at the UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center in Stapleton.

Dr. Justin Ross gives advice on handling pandemic fatigue
Psychologist Justin Ross said many of his patients are coping with pandemic fatigue. Photo courtesy of Justin Ross.

National data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey show that the health crisis is causing a parallel mental health pandemic. About 35-to-40% of people both in Colorado and the U.S. are regularly reporting that they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression as they deal with the pandemic. That’s up from a baseline that’s closer to 25% before the start of the pandemic, Ross said.

He views COVID-19 as a “three-headed monster” when it comes to mental health.

“Anxiety, sadness/depression, and fatigue are the three biggest impacts we’re seeing on mental health,” Ross said. “As the pandemic marches on, mental health is continuing to take a hit and we’re seeing that prolonged exposure is causing a myriad of problems.

“Anxiety is being fueled by uncertainty, lacking a sense of control, and having a number of important values in our lives threatened, all at once,” Ross said.

The rapid, unexpected changes brought on by the pandemic also have led to a series of losses.

“Loss is the greatest driver of depression, and this pandemic has led to all kinds of losses: important events, connection to family, friends and community, travel, opportunities, finances, and career. The list is nearly endless,” Ross said.

“Finally, fatigue comes from juggling multiple demands all at once and operating from a seemingly endless place of appraising threats to our health and figuring out steps to keep ourselves safe.”

Ross said it’s vital for people to keep taking care of themselves and to seek help from a health care professional if they need it. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can get help 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

If you’d like to boost your self-care at home, Ross offers these five tips for handling pandemic fatigue.

1. Reflect and Accept.

Take time to check in with yourself and reflect on how you are doing. If you feel irritated, impatient, angry, or are suffering from fatigue, anxiety or depression, accept that all of these responses are normal and understandable during such a difficult time.

“We can’t change what we’re not aware of. It all starts here,” Ross says. “Awareness has to be the cornerstone of any mental health toolkit. We need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge that what we’re feeling is 100% normal.

“It makes sense that we are tired, sad, scared and anxious right now, those are common reactions,” Ross says.

2. Breathe and Meditate.

Breathing exercises are the simplest way to reduce stress and anxiety. Slow your breathing to tell your body that there’s no immediate threat. We’re built to kick into gear quickly if we need our “fight or flight” response. But stress also can trigger the same systems. And our bodies don’t do well if we’re constantly on high alert.

Ross suggests doing very simple deep breathing sessions at least three times a day. Schedule them and force yourself to slow down and breathe.

“Breathing helps us manage the anxiety response on a physical, physiological and mental level,” Ross said.

The physical level is how the body reacts physically. The physiological response centers on the nervous system. And of course, our mental responses relate to how our brain is responding to stress.

Breathing deeply has the remarkable power to affect people on all three levels.

“One minute of deep breathing helps slow down the sympathetic nervous system — the fight or flight response associated with anxiety. Breathing also helps turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us restore balance and can provide a sense of calm and focus,” Ross said.

 3. Monitor your social media: Stop ‘doomscrolling’ and limit time on your screens.

“Your attention is currency, and social media is designed to take as much of your attention currency as possible,” Ross said.

“Doomscrolling, or purposely tuning in to negative stories on TV or on social media, fuels increased dread, uncertainty, anxiety, and fatigue,” Ross said.

His advice: deliberately stay off social media. If you’re hooked on checking your social feeds on your phone, remove the apps. Try scheduling two, 5-minute “check-in” sessions each day. Then, other than that, stay off social media. If you’re purposely watching cable news shows that are stressing you out, cut the cord, read a book, listen to music or purposely watch shows or movies that transport you to calmer times and places.

“Anxiety can build from media exposure,” Ross said. “Limit your consumption. Pick one or two trusted sources that you are going to rely on and screen out all the others.”

4. Restore and replenish your energy.

During difficult times, we need to deliberately carve out breaks to restore and replenish our reserves. Set reminders to take breaks during the day.

“Take a walk. Take a bath. Read a book. Do things that are deliberately calming. Sitting on the couch and binging Netflix can seem relaxing, but it also can be avoidance behavior that isn’t actually restorative at all,” Ross said.

In order to take care of ourselves in restorative ways, we need to make deliberate decisions.

5. Be active.

Another way to replenish energy is through what’s known as “active self-care.”

“Physical activity, exercise and anything that connects you to meaning and movement all will work,” Ross said.

Again, finding balance and being deliberate about your choices is vital. If you’re constantly going on runs, but aren’t taking time to check in on your mental health or to rest and recharge, then you might not feel better, even after a long run.

Ross, himself, loves to run. He had planned to run both the Boston and Berlin marathons in 2020, both of which were ultimately canceled. This year, he has had to accept the losses of races that didn’t happen and recognize that movement can serve a number of different needs. It doesn’t always have to be about racing for a personal best. In turn, his routine has changed, but he still makes movement a daily priority.

If you need help getting more active, make plans with a friend. Wear a mask and meet for a socially distant walk, hike or run. If the weather is lousy, call a friend and challenge each other to work out indoors.

“People say, ‘I don’t have time,’” Ross said. “But if you make movement a priority, you will find a way to make it happen. Prioritizing time to exercise and meditate by putting it in your schedule and protecting that time is going to make a huge difference in your mental health.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.