It would be fair to say that this year has started off very differently from other years. We have had to make sacrifices and necessary changes to our lifestyle to adapt to the current COVID pandemic. While most of us may have looked towards the new year as a new start with some new goals and aspirations, we have been met with more of the “same”. The “same” limitations in travelling, the “same” restrictions in visiting family/friends, and even the “same” closure of businesses and employment.
Regardless of our experience, we can all agree that what may have started with much anticipation has slowly worked to becoming monotonous, repetitive, and even despairing. If we amplify this process further, we may have noticed that there is a close relationship between these feeling and their effect on our mood or affinity for the activities we once had interest in. If you share some of these sentiments, you may be suffering from something called “COVID fatigue”. So what is “COVID fatigue”? Where did it come from? And how did it get here? Well, if you read further hopefully I can provide you with some insight about what “COVID fatigue” means and what we can do to work through our experience of “COVID fatigue”.
So to start, maybe we should define what “COVID fatigue” is:
“COVID fatigue” is social colloquial term that many occupational health therapists are using to describe the impact managing COVID has placed on individuals, families, and groups. It is the combination of increased social isolation paired with stress over prolonged periods of exposure. The danger of the exposure and symptoms associated with “COVID fatigue” are the negative impacts this has on our minds and bodies which typically manifests as physical stress, decreased motivation, and increased irritability.
As a psychotherapist who has been providing counselling and treatment within the health field for the past six years, I too feel the strain of our current environment. Despite knowing much of the skills and literature associated with human behavior in the areas of motivation and acceptance, I remain affected by the exhaustion of getting through each day, and even at times struggle to make meaning of our current circumstance. So, I thought before we go any further in exploring how we can look to move forward despite our circumstances, I thought it would be worth mentioning and even pausing to do a quick exercise in acknowledging.
So without much further to say, here is my acknowledgement as we begin to unpack ways of working through “COVID fatigue”.
“My name is Guillermo and I suffer from the shared human experience in what many have termed as COVID Fatigue”.
In that same spirit can we (you the reader) pause and maybe take a big deep breath, reflect, and let go of any pretenses that we might be holding on to before we read any further; and consider whether the statements shared above are true for you? If the statements and comments above ring true, I invite you to share in the same human experience with me by stating:
“My name is (your name) and I suffer from the shared human experience in what many have termed as COVID Fatigue” . . . (If this is not you that’s okay too, maybe what you can do is congratulate yourself on doing your best to stay invigorated, by saying “My name is (your name) and I am doing a great job in being supportive of myself by remaining invigorated”)
I know this might seem like a silly exercise and/or statement on which to begin, it is in the realm of acceptance and it is actually one of the most essential and powerful ways of moving through difficult experiences. The reason being, that psychologically when we experience stress, change, and or conflict over prolonged periods of time, we very quickly “other” our experience from everyone else and ourselves; and instead of connecting we begin dissecting. What this means, is that psychologically we no longer make sense of what is happening or maintain a realistic perspective of ourselves through a smooth continuous experience, rather we quickly phase towards blame-shifting or self-blame as a way of coping or managing our experience. If this seems confusing no need to look further than to your own experiences and/or relationships. If you are willing, take a moment to think about the last time someone around you or you yourself, were stressed. What did they/you do? How did they/you behave? Most likely you may have noticed the start of one of the following two things:
- Started engaging in increased critical comments about colleagues, friends or family around them/you;
- Began to use negative language towards themselves/yourself paired with engaging in destructive behaviour.
The reason this happens is because our brains are attempting to make sense of the stress that has been building up, and as a protective measure our mind begins to displace the stress in our bodies by doing unhealthy things like self-deprecation and/or increasing vigilance, which is a precursor to criticality and hostility. It is our bodies attempt to control the stress and compartmentalize this stress as a manageable event, even if it is not the most effective way of managing.
Through this lens, the value in the statements we just made starts to become very meaningful as instead of “othering” ourselves or other people, we begin to relate to ourselves as the people we are, humans. Humans, who have limited control over circumstances and can mutually experience difficult shared events. Rather than displacing our frustrations we can begin to look inwards, by understanding and appreciating our humanity while being able to relate to the humanity of other people. In sum, in this small exercise we can use the “shared human experience” as a compass to guide us closer to one another and closer to the acceptance that we are not alone, while appreciating our humanity as an extension of ourselves. In addition, this healthy recognition of our limitations reduces negative or deprecating experiences which only leads to more stress.
So the big question now is how do we decrease stress caused by “COVID Fatigue”? Hopefully, despite our limitations and challenges at this time, we have continued to attempt engaging in self-care (If this has been challenging for you or have not heard of the term “self-care”, there is no judgement here). Self-Care refers to the healthy strategies we can use to improve our mood and attention to the world around us. This can include developing a routine, engaging in hobbies, calling family and or friends, and going out for walks.
In my experience, as a clinical social worker self-care is the first line of defense in maintaining strong mental health. The reason being, that good mental health takes training and skill building. Much like our bodies, our mental health needs nourishment and consistency in working/training our minds between working towards psychological flexibility and finding rest. Self-care is a good tool that embraces both. We engage in rest when we intentionally begin to do tasks that stimulate our minds, bodies, and our soul in a non-threatening environment. The reason I highlight ‘non-threatening’ is because I am sure we can all say our employment, or being a stay-at-home parent causes stimulation on all these fronts. However, at the end of the day rarely have I heard clients refer to these things as “restful”. The reason these tasks are not restful is because these tasks are associated with expectation and or deliverable demand. In self-care the focus is about us, not about anyone else, or anything we have to deliver. When we begin to focus in non-threatening stimulation, the psychological flexibility comes when we practice these things without the expectations of outcomes.
Often when we engage in self-care we can counteract the benefits when the outcomes of the task are more important than the process of the task itself. Of course this is harder to bring to focus for some of us, but this is part of the process in building good health. Now as I say this, this is not to say that having a purpose or a goal is not healthy, on the contrary, this is a very healthy skill to apply. The difference comes when the goals are over shadowed by set expectations where our engagement in this task begins to take on a measurable value and implies self-worth. A good analogy I use is; it is harder to fall asleep when the whole time we are thinking about falling asleep, or when we begin to judge ourselves as to why we are unable to fall asleep. The same principle applies to our self-care practices; we want to be diligent in our practice without holding judgements about the outcomes of our practice (I cannot talk further about this here but if this is something you are curious to know more about please give us a call, we would be happy to assist you in developing these skills further).
So with all this being said, one last consideration summarizing our importance of acceptance of the situation while engaging in healthy coping skills is to remember that as people we have personal needs, and these needs to do not change. COVID may have changed our interactions and connections but as people our core needs remain the same. We would be creating a disservice to our own mental health if we assumed a position to pause on the things we need simply because COVID exists. I recognize that this aspect is challenging as perhaps the things we draw to gain our needs are predicated by interaction and/or socialization.
Nonetheless, if this is the case I would encourage each of us to explore and be imaginative in ways to meet the needs we have such as having a sense of belonging, community, closeness, and appreciation. I highlight this as often in practice clients can engage in the most effective and elaborate self-care plans, but if they deny themselves of their very fundamental needs as people it does not matter how hard they try, there will be a mental uphill to climb because all these components I listed are core needs that we all share and further enhance our quality of life.
In sum, if we are going to get through our own experience of “COVID fatigue” I encourage you to try and experience what acceptance through a shared human experience may offer you at this time, paired with self-care skills, and prioritizing your basic needs to continue to enhance your mental well-being.
I wish you all well with your mental health journey, and encourage you to remain engaged in improving your mental health through some of the activities listed, or activities you participate in on your own. Have a great February everyone!