Sonya M. Sloan, MD, shares her thoughts on the challenges of COVID fatigue and how we can get through it together.

Everyone who’s tired of the COVID-19 global pandemic, please raise your hand! You, by definition, have “COVID fatigue”. I am not talking about the clinical diagnosis of fatigue that occurs with patients who experience tiredness as a post-viral symptom. I am referring to the term “COVID-fatigue” or “pandemic-fatigue” as an emotional and psychological symptom that can manifest into detrimental physical signs when dealing with the challenges of COVID.

COVID fatigue is the sensation or feeling of being overwhelmed due to the current extended stressor. It includes emotional burnout, tiredness with fear or frustration, and anxiety about all things pertaining to the coronavirus.

The ultimate trauma

Since it first appeared in late 2019, the coronavirus has threatened the world with the ultimate trauma. This virus can spread quickly with the possibility of a myriad of symptoms — or none at all — as well as the possibility of death.

In 2020, perhaps the most significant impacts are the ongoing triggers that continue to torture our mental psyche and well-being, including the overwhelming sense of a disorganized effort to truly stop, treat, protect, and cure humans from this virus. The inconsistent variation in our lives and the looming possibility of closures and lack of resources — on top of the questionable health implications short term and long term — leaves us feeling unstable and extremely vulnerable. As with any threat, one must recognize the stressors or triggers and the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that occurs with it.

The mental and physical toll

The human body, mind, and spirit are not designed to live with a constant stressor over a long period. There are higher reports of depression, stress, anxiety, alcohol or drug dependency, and suicides in the past year due to the pandemic.

So what happens when we are subjected to this type of insult for an extended time? Our bodies will respond with the trauma-induced fight-or-flight response. This response is better understood as a coping skill we use to protect ourselves when a stressor or trigger occurs and/or when it is over. Coping skills sound great, but COVID-19 has not let up, and it has been a continuous threat in multiple areas of each of our lives while simultaneously overlapping its grip.

Most people have heard of fight-or-flight, but there are other coping responses — some you may have never heard of — that might better explain how most of the world is dealing with COVID-19:

  • Fight: Resist, self-preservation, aggressive behavior, temper, outburst, can’t hear other points of view, dictatorial actions, demands of perfection
  • Flight: Evade the threat, panic, anxiety, over-worry, inability to stay still or relax, micro-manage, over-achieve
  • Freeze: Become paralyzed, surreal feelings, space out, isolate self, hibernate or be lazy, brain fog, indecisive, resist taking action, wanting to hide from the world, feeling hopeless and lifeless
  • Flop or Fawn: Collapse or give in to the threat, over-caring, people-pleasing, can’t say no, feels like a victim and exploited by others, craves acceptance or to fit in
  • Friend: Trauma bonding

At this current time, our body, mind, and soul only have two possible responses to Covid-19 as a continuous stressor: freezing or fawning. With each of these responses, there is still a need for recovery and healing. People are looking for hope and also help so they can heal.

Overcoming COVID fatigue

Many articles and soon-to-be books about COVID-fatigue are being published, and most come to a consensus of ways to handle it.

  • Therapy (via telemedicine) is a great way to talk through or process stressors and possible ways to address them.
  • Self-care is taking time to address your personal needs, hygiene, and health.
  • Exercise is always the right answer. It releases endorphins and increases blood flow to vital organs and tissues, holding on to stress chemicals.
  • Pray, meditate, and practice mindfulness or being present in the moment. I highly recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
  • Journal or express your thoughts in a written format for reflection.
  • Limit exposure to information — be it news media, social media, friends, or family. Too much data can overwhelm you, especially children, so protect what you are taking in.
  • Be present virtually. Do not isolate yourself trying to be safe. Yes, social distance with six-feet for your safety (perhaps ten and a mask), but be present virtually on various platforms to connect with colleagues, friends, and family.

What will the future hold?

At the end of 2020, I have many unanswered questions, just as you do. How many more people will lose their life to this awful virus? What will happen to my family and me if I get sick? Do I have enough money and resources to last through another shutdown? Will we ever go back to some sense of normal? If not, what will the new normal look like? Will we have to continue to open and shut down so we can keep positive case numbers low? What happens if we don’t control this virus? When will a vaccine be available? Should I take the vaccine or not? Will students ever have the experience of regular school or college life again? When will we be able to enjoy seeing our family and friends? When can we start going out, dining in restaurants, going to movie theaters, sporting events, and traveling locally and abroad?

The honest answer is that no one knows. There is no absolute yes or no, right or wrong, now or then answer. So, for the time being, please acknowledge you may be overwhelmed and tired of this pandemic. It’s ok to admit you have Covid-fatigue, and perhaps by your admission, it will help you to cope and adapt to the unknown and unpredictable transitions we are all facing during this world-wide pandemic. Recognize the triggers or stressors of Covid-fatigue and how you can proactively cope with some practical methods to live through one of the most significant medical, social, and economic events in our lifetime. We are all in this together. We will get through this!