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COUNTY CONNECTIONS: The COVID Blues: Signs of Emotional Fatigue

Nov 20, 2020 11:11AM ● By Editor

By Matthew Baxley and Grace Bushard, Cook County Public Health and Human Services, from Cook County MN - November 20, 2020


Many of us are feeling the emotional toll of the uncertainty, worry and dramatic changes to our habits and our lives during the pandemic. 

"COVID fatigue" is the overall sense of exhaustion based on the combination of challenges people are facing. It is exhausting to be in a constant state of alert and uncertainty, and people who are feeling defeated or burned out are at a greater risk of engaging in risky behaviors that can increase the spread of the coronavirus. 

What is pandemic fatigue?

The coronavirus has brought with it a number of stressors, including job loss, social isolation, childcare challenges and general uncertainty, that has taxed the mental health of millions of people worldwide.  As the pandemic persists, people are reporting higher levels of depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug use. The surge in behavioral health needs during and following the pandemic will likely surpass the capacity of our already-limited mental healthcare systems. The next challenge we face is to flatten the mental health curve.

David Sbarra, a clinical psychologist and professor in the psychology department at the University of Arizona, studies how human health – both psychological and physical – is tied to our close relationships. Sbarra discusses how the prolonged nature of this unprecedented health crisis might contribute to chronic stress and “pandemic fatigue.” 

Health inequities in our systems and communities mean that some people are disproportionately impacted by COVID fatigue. While many Americans are struggling with the emotional challenges of the pandemic, those who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder are at greatest risk. Older adults and others at the greatest risk of serious illness from COVID-19 are increasingly isolated from their loved ones, making loneliness especially common. 

As winter approaches and the virus continues to spread, uncertainty and despair are looming large in our everyday consciousness. At this moment in history, so much of our lives feels out of control, and with this feeling comes stress.

It is well known that sleep plays an essential restorative function for our health. The more we worry and despair, the less we sleep, and the less we sleep, the more prone we are to struggle with our emotions. 

When maintained over time, the physiology of stress can exert a negative toll on our bodies. We also know that people are highly resilient and can adapt to all kinds of difficult circumstances, and often we do this by trying to increase our coping resources. Social support and belonging provide key resources for mitigating stress and, despite our current circumstances, there’s always room to connect with friends and family.

How to get through pandemic fatigue?

If you are noticing the signs of pandemic fatigue, there are many things that you can do to build resiliency. The following are the four main areas of COVID fatigue and some coping mechanisms for each one:

  • Change fatigue and uncertainty burnout:  
    • Accept that life will continue to be difficult for a while. Focus on the things that you can control – like your own behavior and reaction – to manage the fatigue and uncertainty.
    • Find the silver lining. What are some of the positive changes you’ve noticed since the start of the pandemic? Practicing gratitude can help counter feelings of stress and negative emotions.
    • Look for activities new and old that continue to fulfill you. 
  • Depleted surge capacity (weakening of the mental and physical adaptations that help us cope with stress):
    • Find a breath or mindfulness practice to adapt and recharge.
    • Expect less from yourself: cut yourself some slack and give yourself some grace.
  • Zoom burnout:
    • Implement the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes you look at a screen, look away from the screen and focus on a spot 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
    • Use transitions well. Getting up and walking for two minutes every hour can help reverse the negative health effects of prolonged sitting. Also consider other formats for meetings, such as a telephone call or shorter meeting where you do some of the work by e-mail.
    • Choose to move by making physical activity a priority.
  • "Doom scrolling," or staying glued to electronic devices to find out information on the disasters and stressors that face our country:
    • Limit your exposure to social media.
    • Be mindful of the type of news you are consuming.
    • Use social media to maintain connection with friends and loved ones.
  • Fatigue in family relationships:
    • Tune in and listen to our loved ones to help them feel understood and to communicate that we are available and ready to meet their needs.

COVID fatigue can take a toll. Stress, anxiety and irritability are all normal reactions to the abnormal situation we are facing. Having a plan can help. Call the Cook County Community Support Line at 218-877-7071 for help in developing a COVID plan and connecting with resources to help manage.

Information and resources are also available by calling 218-387-3620, online at www.cookcountyphhs.org,  or on Facebook @CookCountyPHHS. Information on how to connect with PHHS staff and programs is available on the Cook County COVID-19 hub site at www.cookcountycovid19.org.

Sources: Alexis Blue: Futurity.org, Shilagh A. Mirgain: UW Health

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service

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