When will it end? Two years on from the start of a global pandemic and the first lockdown measures, many of us are just feeling exhausted by it all. Though things are improving, research shows an increase in anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic – and it’s only growing. We’ve had a lot of stress, grief and trauma to deal with. So if you’re experiencing ‘pandemic fatigue’, it’s not surprising – and you’re not alone. Here are some tips for looking after your mental health in these difficult and uncertain times.
Pandemic fatigue is real – but what is it?
What is pandemic fatigue? When we talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, the word ‘fatigue’ is sometimes used to mean a physical symptom, the post-viral exhaustion many people experience as a result of ‘long COVID’. Sometimes ‘pandemic fatigue’ is used by policymakers to describe populations getting tired of complying with public health measures such as wearing masks. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines pandemic fatigue as “feeling demotivated about following recommended behaviours to protect ourselves and others from the virus.”
But what we’re talking about here is pandemic fatigue in the sense of mental exhaustion with the sheer life-upending readjustment to a seemingly relentless new reality of a pandemic that’s now in its third year – and feels never-ending. And just when we thought it was coming to an end, the Omicron variant came along. Aren’t you just fed up with and exhausted by the whole thing now? When will it end?
While we may be urged to ‘live with it’, many people are still dying from it, getting sick with it, and suffering from long-COVID after recovering from it. And living with COVID doesn’t mean pretending it doesn’t exist. It means maintaining public health precautions such as vaccinations, regular testing, mask wearing, social distancing, ventilation, handwashing – even periodic lockdowns and other social restrictions, depending on your location.
Many people have adapted well to these measures – wearing a mask to the shops is just part of our routine. But some people find them more difficult than others. And the mental energy required for extra vigilance, changing our plans and routines – not to mention health anxiety – is tiring for all of us. Will things ever get back to ‘normal’ – or is this the ‘new normal’?
Pandemics end. Things will return to normal one day. Meanwhile, one thing that is completely normal and natural is pandemic fatigue.
Pandemic fatigue symptoms
The pandemic isn’t over – and neither are the mental health consequences. In fact, they may be getting worse. A recent Canadian research study describes the picture as one of exhaustion and increasing trauma. One in three Canadians say they’re struggling with their mental health. And this is up from one in four in November 2021, before Omicron became the dominant variant.
The signs and symptoms of pandemic fatigue will vary from person to person. It may manifest itself as stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, lack of energy or detachment from work. Some common ones include:
- Stress. Everything may just seem too much some days. Life can be stressful at the best of times – and the pandemic just makes things worse. Work is a common trigger for stress. Perhaps you have a demanding job. Or maybe a lot of your colleagues are off sick or isolating at any one time, meaning you have to take on their workload. Stress can also manifest itself as irritation, anger or impatience.
- Emotional exhaustion. You might just feel emotionally drained by the world around you. This is especially true if you’ve worked in a demanding front-line environment during the pandemic – such as as a medic or other key worker.
- Physical tiredness and lack of energy. Though we’re talking about mental exhaustion and burnout, physical exhaustion can be a manifestation of that. Tiredness can be a symptom of depression – and of long-COVID. If you feel physically tired all the time, you should always seek advice from your doctor.
- Feeling unfocused or detached. Whether at work or in your personal life, you may struggle to concentrate or focus on tasks. This may make you less effective in your job – and you may feel detached from work.
- Anxiety about the future. This is completely normal and understandable. The best laid plans have been interrupted and upended by the pandemic – whether that’s due to health reasons or public health measures such as lockdowns. Your university education or your kids’ education may have been interrupted, for example. You may feel anxious about your own future, or the future of your family, friends, community – and wider society. When things are unpredictable, you may feel that you have no control over your life.
- Social anxiety. The social isolation of lockdown may have left you with social anxiety around meeting up with people again – even once restrictions are lifted.
- Health anxiety. Maybe you feel extremely anxious about your health, or the health of family members – especially if you or they are clinically vulnerable. This anxiety may be justified – or it might be somewhat exaggerated. You may struggle to lower your ‘alert levels’ even once the worst of the danger has subsided.
- Depression. The last two years may have taken their toll and left you feeling sad, lonely or depressed. If you were already prone to depression, the pandemic may have exacerbated things.
- Less willingness to comply with public health guidelines. As the pandemic drags on into another year, growing weary of public health protections such as mask-wearing and social distancing is understandable – especially when we see other people flouting the rules. But it could prolong the pandemic even further.
Overcoming pandemic fatigue – 12 self-care tips
Pandemic fatigue is something that many of us can relate to. Over the last couple of years our routines have been upended, relationships strained, financial worries heightened and we’ve had to get to grips with an uncertain future. Here are 10 tips for dealing with difficult times:
- Reflect and accept. Check in with yourself and reflect on how you’re doing. Do you feel anxious, depressed, sad, stressed, exhausted or irritated? There could be any number of reasons for these feelings. But don’t underestimate the impact of the pandemic. These are all normal, understandable responses during such a difficult time. While you may feel you’ve adapted well to the current conditions, the background, low-level vigilance, anxiety and trauma caused by living through a prolonged global pandemic takes its toll – even if you’re not consciously aware of it. So give yourself a break. And recognise that pandemic fatigue is a Thing.
- Get a good night’s sleep. A key step to overcoming pandemic fatigue is to practice healthy sleep habits, or good ‘sleep hygiene’. Try to go to bed consistently at the same time each day and give yourself time for around 7-9 hours’ sleep. Set a curfew on things that affect sleep quality, such as alcohol, caffeine and big meals. Because stress and anxiety can cause sleeping problems, unwind before bed too – and minimise screen time before bedtime.
- Manage your stress. It’s important to try to manage your stress levels – and the things that cause you to feel overwhelmed. See our post on 10 ways to manage stress for some tips.
- Follow a schedule. In lockdown, it was easy for the hours to blur into one, especially if you were made redundant or put on furlough. But that lack of structure can result in listlessness. Getting back into a routine as we came out of lockdowns may have felt difficult. Many of us are still working from home, for example. But setting a routine will make you feel less anxious and more in control.
- Breathe in… and out. If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, breathing exercises can help. Breathing slowly and deeply gives your parasympathetic nervous system a boost, which promotes a sense of calm. Simply breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds – and repeat as needed.
- Practice mindfulness meditation. Our bodies don’t do well if we’re constantly on high alert. Pandemic-related stress can trigger this feeling of vigilance. Bring your attention back to your body, your breath and the present moment each morning with a short mindfulness meditation. There are lots of apps available to guide you.
- Avoid catastrophising. Notice any catastrophic scenarios you might be creating in your mind. When you notice that you’re having a catastrophic thought, tell yourself it’s just that – a thought. Instead of trying to predict the future or imagining the worst-case scenario, focus on living each day moment-by-moment.
- Limit your media consumption. If you’re prone to anxiety, limit the time you spend ‘doomscrolling’ on social media and consuming the news. Both can amplify your stresses and worries, and it can be especially triggering if you already struggle with anxiety. Try limiting your social media time to two 5-minute check-ins a day – or even delete apps you think are causing you anxiety, even if it’s temporarily. A digital detox could be just the act of self-care you need.
- Move around. Exercise has great mental health benefits – and can be thought of as ‘active self-care’. If you need motivation, make plans with a friend to go for a walk, hike or run. You can still do this in a COVID-safe way by remaining socially distant or even wearing a mask – depending on what’s recommended in your locality.
- Stay connected. Socialisation is vital right now. We may have become used to a degree of social isolation, and find it hard to get back into our usual social routines even when lockdown restrictions are lifted. This may be partly due to anxiety. But think about your values. If seeing your friends is important to you, it may be worth tolerating some anxiety to do something that makes you happy and brings your life meaning. Find purposeful, intentional ways you can connect with others – or show your loved ones a random act of kindness.
- Schedule ‘me’ time. Self-care can take many forms. It’s all about being mindful and doing activities that nourish you – whether that’s taking a bath, reading a book, going for a walk or listening to music. However busy you are, it’s important to carve out breaks to restore and replenish your reserves. Set reminders to take breaks during the day. And take a complete break from work now and then – make sure to use up your annual leave!
- Speak to someone. If you’re struggling with stress, burnout, anxiety, depression or other difficulties that may be related to pandemic fatigue, it can be enormously helpful to speak to a friend, family member, your GP or a therapist. Or you may want to try our Self-care courses, which have plenty of therapy skills and techniques from senior psychologists to help ground yourself and promote feelings of calm.
We’ve all experienced so much together during the last two years – a sense of loss, but also daring to hope for the future. Things have already improved considerably compared with the start of the pandemic. We will come through this together. But give yourself a break if you’re feeling fatigued by it all. It’s no wonder. Stay connected, look after yourself and practice self-care. And we’re here if you need to speak to someone.