On more than one occasion over the last few weeks, I’ve spontaneously burst into tears. I didn’t think that things had necessarily been hitting me any harder than they had a few weeks (or even months) prior, but living alone during a time that we’re all staying at home is hard. Not being able to see friends or hug loved ones is hard. Spending most of my time outside of work cleaning my apartment (it’s amazing how quickly it gets messy when I’m home all the time) is hard. And here in my apartment, it’s not nearly as hard as it is for others. Parenting during a pandemic is hard—trying to work and care for kids and navigate school all at the same time. Losing a job and being unsure of when you might be back to work (and how you’ll pay your bills in the meantime) is hard. Saying goodbye to loved ones—let alone doing so over FaceTime—feels impossible. Let’s face it: living through a pandemic is hard. And I’m so beyond over all of this.
As it turns out, I’m far from alone. Lots of people are feeling stressed, tired, and frustrated. Pandemic fatigue is weighing on all of us. We’re (finally?) hitting a “pandemic wall” in a way that feels different than anything we experienced in 2020.
“…People were expecting the year to kind of punctuate a big change and the fact that a lot hasn’t necessarily changed in the new year is really exhausting,” Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, the science communication lead at The Covid Tracking Project, explained.
To put it briefly, we’re all still dealing with a lot, even though we’d hoped all of this would’ve been well behind us by this point. And adding winter into the equation? It’s not helping.
“There has also been increased difficulty due to the holidays being over, the new year passing, and being in the middle of winter. This is typically a hard time of year even outside of the context of the pandemic,” Dr. Rebekah Montgomery, PhD, a clinical psychologist, said.
We may not know exactly when this will actually be “over” or when days will bring good news or bad, but vaccinations are underway and that’s cause for some optimism. So how can we cope while we’re in this in-between time? Do we just have to resort to feeling stressed and tired and overwhelmed for the duration? (No, we don’t. That’s the good news.) To help us all make it through, we turned to two experts for their insight on how we can take care of ourselves. There are brighter days ahead.
1. Know that it’s totally normal to feel pandemic fatigue
Whatever you do, don’t be embarrassed or feel like you shouldn’t be tired after handling all that you’ve dealt with over the course of the last year. It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed.
“I don’t want people to feel even more shame and guilt for being over this, like, everybody should feel over it, right? But it’s also another reminder to kind of stay true to the course because the end really is in sight,” Malaty Rivera said. “It’s kind of a head/heart-type thing, right? We know in our hearts this is hard, but we also know in our heads that we can get past this. And I’m with people in their sentiments of feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and tired of this, I truly am.”
If you find yourself feeling guilty over your pandemic fatigue, remind yourself that you’re not the only one experiencing it. Talk to a friend, family member, or partner (but make sure they have the emotional capacity to handle the conversation first) who can listen to how you’re feeling and validate that things are hard. Think or journal about things you’re grateful for. We don’t need toxic positivity, but focusing on some of the good instead of the guilt might be just what you need. Take a walk or do something that’ll get you in a better headspace. Dwelling in the shame definitely isn’t making anything better.
We can make it through both the pandemic and the pandemic fatigue, but there’s no reason to think that there’s some reason why you can’t feel like hard things really are hard. They are and we can all acknowledge it!
2. Make time for movement or meditation
It can be really easy to strike exercise, an after-work walk, and all those other perceived “extras” from your to-do list when it feels like there just truly aren’t enough hours in the day, but doing your best to fit in some sort of movement and relaxation can help you cope with those feelings of overwhelm (even if it sounds sort of counterintuitive).
“Our body holds stress, anxiety, and sadness and it can be beneficial to give our bodies a release from these perpetual emotions,” Montgomery explained. “Walk, run, hike, dance, yoga, do what makes you feel good. Notice what types of physical movement you need when you are feeling certain ways. You will likely see that your body craves certain types of movement depending on what you’re feeling.”
Set your alarm clock a bit earlier and begin the day with some slow and gentle stretching or get your heart pumping right away with an impromptu dance party. Use your lunch break for a walk around your neighborhood or some yoga flows. You can even set an alarm periodically for a quick stretch or stroll around your house to break up your workday.
Montgomery said that meditation can also help. In a time when so many things that we’d normally do to help us handle all we’re dealing with are off the table due to the pandemic, meditation is still doable, she explained. Consider trying a meditation app and make sure you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself if you’re trying something new—it might take a little time to feel comfortable.
3. Pay attention to where things stand where you are
Regularly scrolling the New York Times or your local paper’s coverage of the most up-to-date data might sound completely overwhelming, but knowing how things are going where you live might actually help you break through some of the fatigue and motivate you to keep doing what you’re doing (or change what you’re doing to help stop the spread of the virus, as Malaty Rivera pointed out, since this information is what’s used to make decisions about further restrictions). It can help you feel more in control, particularly when restrictions and re-openings can be so touch-and-go.
But you need to know how to read and interpret the data—particularly if you’re sharing it with other people—so that you make sure you’ve got it right. Taking on a scientific paper is a skill and you can learn it, it just takes some practice. The first thing to know? It’s all about context. You can’t just look at one day or one measurement and know what’s going on.
“It is multiple pieces of a puzzle that need to all be considered at the same time—and you need to consider trend lines too, right?” Malaty Rivera said. “You can’t just look at the data on a Tuesday in one place and not consider the fact that, what day of the week is it? Was there a holiday? What are the seven-day averages and what are the 14-day averages and how does this compare jurisdiction to jurisdiction?”
Taking everything into consideration gives you a fuller picture and a better idea of what’s actually happening or what new research really means.
If you need help figuring out what the data is saying, following experts you trust on social media is one way to get there. But if you’re getting your info from people who are presenting either a super rosy or super negative version of the news (whether it’s pandemic data or information about treatments or vaccines), Malaty Rivera suggested reevaluating. Find people who break down the data and explain things to you to help you learn how you can spot truly good (or bad) news when it breaks.
4. Put down your phone, turn off your TV—whatever it takes, quit doom-scrolling
Though we all probably expected some politics and election-related doom-scrolling in 2020 (let’s be honest, friends), I don’t think many of us were ready for pandemic doom-scrolling. It’s so easy to get sucked into scrolling and reading and taking in all kinds of information without really thinking too much about if it’s helping you or hurting you, but it’s time to break that habit if you can.
“It is my job to doom-scroll because I analyze data, but I don’t think it’s for everybody,” Malaty Rivera said. “…[E]specially now, 12 months in, as [the] end is sort of in sight and our kids are maybe starting to go back to school in the next couple of months, take your information from a limited amount of trusted sources and limit your time in reading it every day because I don’t think it’s necessarily helping people.”
We all deserve to take a break. Mute or unfollow accounts that are taking a toll on your mental health or adding to your stress. Turn off cable news or let your newspaper or news app sit for a day or two. Delete apps from your phone if you just can’t help but doom-scroll. Take a weekend free from social media or news. The articles, Instagram stories, and data will be there when you’re ready to come back to them.
5. Make plans (yes, really)
You’ve probably quit making plans you’ll just have to cancel later, but you might want to re-think that policy.
“We benefit from anticipating good things,” Montgomery said. “Some research says that we actually have more emotional benefit in anticipating than experiencing! We just don’t know how things are going to be, there are no guarantees, but we can enjoy the anticipation.”
Plan that trip abroad (post-pandemic, of course), organize that next getaway or get-together with family or friends, consider trying something new that’s way out of your usual comfort zone—you deserve to look forward to things that’ll be fun, even if you’re not quite sure when they’ll happen.
6. Think about what you want to keep around once this is over
“As challenging as this time has been, there have been positive changes people have noticed,” Montgomery said. “The benefit of slowing down, being home, being with family, home-cooked meals, less time commuting, greater appreciation for connection, career changes, or clarity around meaning and purpose. What do you want to take from this experience and keep in your life?”
Maybe you learned something about yourself you didn’t know before (haven’t we all?). Make a list of ways your priorities may have shifted in a positive direction, your new boundaries, the things about yourself that you’re proud of from during this time, and think through some of the ways that you can continue to put these things first even after all of this is “over.” Your good things might be different than other people’s—and they definitely do not mean that the hard things you’ve experienced this year haven’t been extremely stressful—but you may be able to find a few things that you don’t want to go back to normal post-pandemic. And those are worth holding onto.