In the past couple of weeks, I’ve started to hit a pandemic wall and a lot of people feel similarly. We’re burnt out. We’re tired of conducting our whole life on zoom. We’re tired of wearing a mask. We’re sick of eating bundled up outside. We’re sick of cooking and cleaning up. Cooking and cleaning up. Cooking and cleaning up. And although the vaccine has provided a glimpse of hope, we still don’t know how much longer we’re going to be in it. We’ve been dealing with it for a year now and our fight-or-flight system is approaching overload.
So why are we burning out now?
If you’re feeling burnt out by it all lately, you’re definitely not alone. Feeling emotionally exhausted, especially in this stage of the pandemic, is very normal, mental health experts say. Although we’re in a much better position than we were six months ago, it actually makes a lot of sense that many of us are reaching our tipping point right now.
According to survival psychologist John Leach, PhD, having a specific endpoint in sight is critical to making it through a situation like ours, and licensed psychologist C.C. Cassell agrees. “One thing that typically helps us cope with a stressful experience is knowing that it is temporary and will end at some point,” she says. “What makes this pandemic particularly stressful is that there is no specified end date.” Last March, we thought we’d be out of this by June– and now suddenly we’re staring March of 2021 in the face hoping that we’re out of it by the summer. Although we have a better understanding of when things might return to normal, now we have new strains to deal with, a haphazard vaccine roll-out, no clue when we’ll actually receive the vaccine or when we’ll reach the safety of herd immunity. There’s still no clear endpoint which is wearing us down.
Additionally, the past year has thrown a lot of extra political and social-cultural stressors at us that have made it even harder for us to establish sure footing.
“Even though we are 11 months into the pandemic, we haven’t had time to adjust to this ‘new normal’ as the conditions surrounding the pandemic have been in constant flux.”–C.C. Cassell
And now, in many parts of the country, we’re also faced with winter weather that isn’t helping. Depending on where you live, it has become harder to go outside for a walk or meet up with friends at an outdoor venue, explains Psychiatrist Jessica Gold, MD, MS. “Seeing humans outside gave you a change of scenery and caused a shift to your mood. So simply being in your house all day and trying to think of what works [in terms of activities] there, and because it’s cold and dark and there’s not much else to do… that part has also made it additionally hard for people.”
5 Tips to Alleviate Pandemic Burnout
Dealing with pandemic burnout isn’t easy because we have no means of changing the situation. However, there are still things we can do to lighten the emotional load and “keep calm and carry on.” Here are a few ideas.
1. Share in the struggle
“What is most personal is most universal.”Carl R. Rogers
Although we may feel completely isolated in our emotions, it’s important to remember that many people are feeling exactly the same way. Thousands of moms are feeling stressed by online school. Thousands of people are tired of working from home. Thousands of people are liking tweets about pandemic exhaustion. Thousands of people are feeling lonely. Thousands of people are feeling anxious. Thousands of people are grieving.
Tapping into the universality of our emotions is a helpful way to normalize our experience. It also helps to brea the cycle of isolation that often accompanies burnout. To do this, you can try a Tonglen meditation or talk to others about how you’re feeling. Just knowing that other people are feeling the same way as you can make you feel better.
2. Edit your to-do list
For high endurance types, a lack of productivity resulting from burnout can be especially devastating. Some days I feel mad at myself for not getting enough done due to lack of concentration, motivation, anxiety or whatever it may be. The first step in dealing with this is recognizing that you’re just not going to get as much done as you normally would and that’s okay.
Then, Dr. Jessica Gold actually recommends adding things to your to-do list, but in ways that make it easier for you to check them off. For example, instead of adding an entire task that you need to get done, add the smaller steps involved. “It makes your list way longer but at the end of the day, you can look back and feel like you did something, which is super important during the pandemic—otherwise you can feel like you’re never getting anything done which can lead to a lot of negative self-talk,” says Dr. Gold.
3. Pause and cherish small moments
“Be in the moment, especially when the moment feels good.”– Aimee Daramus, PsyD
You can also reduce burnout by taking time to pause and cherish small moments throughout your day. To tune into this present moment awareness, take the time to pet your dog and feel the soothing emotions that arise in doing so. Savor the warmth and smell of your morning tea or coffee. Take time to listen to the birds in the morning, or savor other small pleasures.
In an interview with Radio Boston, Meghan Kelly, social media editor for WBUR, reflects on how she pauses and cherishes small moments:
“I love eavesdropping on my kids Zoom calls or Google Meets with their classes because you get a glimpse into their school day that maybe I definitely wouldn’t have gotten before. And their teachers are killing it, like they are just working so hard. They are always upbeat. They’re super positive about it. So that has been really nice actually is just hearing them talk to the kids pretty openly about stuff, but also just being honest that sometimes it’s hard and, you know, ‘Hey, everyone, take a break and everyone, you can show off your pets or your baby brother or whatever.’ And there’s stuff that that is easy to do, like take a bath…I think it’s important to find, even if it’s just small things, that they don’t feel really big, that maybe are big is a really big thing for me and I hope for other people as well.“-Meghan Kelly, social media editor for WBUR
4. Make it a point to socialize
To avoid the Groundhog Day effect, it’s important to make plans to connect with people. Before the pandemic, we would spontaneously fall into social hangs but now it requires more effort to maintain our social livelihood. We need connection beyond texts and social media and it takes more planning than usual. Make it a point to schedule a call with your best friend or meet up with someone for a socially distanced coffee.
5. Make plans for after the pandemic
Although we don’t know exactly when we’ll be able to live mask-free again, it’s important to provide yourself with some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s not completely decided date-wise. Maybe take advantage of the cheap flight rates right now and book a refundable trip for later this year or the beginning of 2022 to give yourself something to look forward to.
And remember — this too shall pass.
For more ideas on self-care during the pandemic, see Prioritizing Self-Care During COVID-19.