Nearly six months ago, when the pandemic forced us all indoors, with no clear end in sight, I was overcome by absolute dread and then, mysteriously, a tempting sense of optimism.
An image of the days to come materialized in my brain, resplendent with all that excess free time, and I allowed my ambitions to run wild. Thankfully, I still had my job, so I entertained my fantasies. Some things I imagined I might do over the course of the weeks in isolation: learn to cook elaborate meals; become a more devoted cinephile; write a short story; pick up the basics of a new language; Zoom happy hours and parties with friends; read, like, 30 books; relax; achieve my ideal body by the grace of some workout assistant app; be so productive I would, inevitably, surprise myself.
What surprised me most were my many failures to launch.
As it turned out, I didn’t feel so productive. Oftentimes, I didn’t even feel like myself. Whatever sense of optimism I’d initially cobbled together was misplaced somewhere along the way, then traded for a horrible, creeping anxiety. I couldn’t focus. Reading became impossible. I had headaches, and trouble sleeping. I felt incredibly nervous for my mother, an essential worker. My grandmother, already wearied by other health concerns, was hospitalized with COVID-19, and I became terrified of getting anyone sick.
I felt this way for months. It didn’t occur to me that these things might all be connected until, about a week ago, a very astute colleague said, very plainly, “It’s called burnout,” then, “It’s hard to recognize that sometimes. But it’s good to name what’s happening.”
Watch: Exercising less, but still feeling tired? Here’s why. Story continues below.
COVID-19 is making Canadians anxious and “literally depressed”
My colleague was right, on both counts.
“The pandemic is a recipe for depression and anxiety,” Dr. Ingrid Söchting, director of the University of British Columbia Psychology Clinic, told HuffPost Canada. “What we’re seeing is many of our common protective buffers against stress — like social interactions and human connection — have suddenly been removed, and people are surprised that they’re beginning to struggle because they may not have previously thought they were prone to depression or anxiety.”
What is burnout?
“Burnout” is a psych term from the 1970s that basically just means “stress.” Or, rather, it’s a prolonged state of emotional, physical and/or mental exhaustion caused by an accumulation of stress. The result is feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained, listless, unable to cope. (And, for the record, women are still more likely than men to report having “a great deal of stress.”)
“In this case, the stressor is the virus,” Söchting said. “Initially, we didn’t know just how dangerous this was, or how long it would last for. And many people weren’t equipped with good coping skills to handle feeling overwhelmed.” (Data from an Angus Reid study revealed a nation that is “literally depressed.”)
Likewise, many people (myself included) aren’t equipped to identify, in themselves, symptoms of anxiety, stress, or burnout. It’s easy to pass off an inability to focus as a desire to do something else, or a period of exhaustion as a consequence of not having slept enough. But many of these easily dismissible things — difficulty focusing/completing daily tasks, lower appetite, and exhaustion, for example — could be markers of something else.
Our biological fight-or-flight response could produce other symptoms
Contrary to what we sometimes believe of our relative “sophistication,” humans are still terrestrial animals, and share a biological stress response system with some of our wildlife friends. That system — what’s called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis — is the thing that allows us to gather up energy to face any life-or-death threats. In many ways, it keeps us alive.
The thing is that this pandemic has been crawling on for months now. And, per a piece in The Conversation by Kate Harkness, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Queen’s University, “the HPA axis doesn’t know the difference between the life-or-death threat of a predator attack and modern stressors.”
Modern stressors like … a global pandemic.
And since the pandemic continues on, our bodies might continue to perceive an imminent threat, releasing stress hormones that can lead to inflammation of skin, headaches, neck tension, joint pain, stomach aches and other gastrointestinal problems, feelings of depression or loneliness, and more.
Listed below are some common signs that you might be experiencing COVID-19-related stress:
Sleeping too little or sleeping too much
If you’re experiencing disturbance in sleep (waking up often, having trouble falling asleep), sleeping more than you’re used to, or rising in the morning without feeling too well-rested, it might be a sign of stress.
“Anything more than nine-and-a-half hours could be a sign that you’re hiding, using your bed as a way of checking out,” Söchting said.
Excessive drinking or smoking habits
Consuming alcohol, or cannabis, or both, is for many people a way to achieve temporary relief from stress and anxiety. In fact, at the beginning of the pandemic, a Nanos poll found Canadians under 54 were drinking far more at home than they usually did.
“It’s easier not to limit how much you’re drinking when you’re doing it at home, because it’s not as though you have to worry about driving or being in public,” Dr. Söchting said.
Withdrawal, or avoiding the outdoors
When the pandemic hit, lots of people just holed up and became hermetic, as recommended by health authorities. Bedrooms became bunkers, and people stockpiled groceries as though they were bracing for apocalypse. But, several months in, an extended period of avoiding the outdoors could be a sign of stress, anxiety, and/or depression.
Struggling with a sense of purpose
“It’s easy, with this, to feel as though you don’t have anything to look forward to,” Söchting said. For those who have lost their jobs, it isn’t abnormal to feel like life has less meaning, since suddenly there is less to do.
“Many students, too, for example, are wondering about the future of their careers in a world where it isn’t safe to touch other people,” Söchting said. “What if you’re studying to be a physiotherapist, or another job that requires close proximity to other people?”
Obsessively monitoring your symptoms
Remember at the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was obsessively washing their hands to the point that there was a rise in hand eczema? Of course, you should still be going about your day as safely as possible — wash your hands, where a mask where necessary, maintain physical distance — but if you’re still obsessively monitoring your symptoms, you could be stressed out.
“A lot of anxiety is stemming from people overestimating the probability of them contracting the virus, or convincing themselves that if they go outside, they’ll catch it,” Söchting said. “It’s important to do your research and to be realistic about that probability. We don’t really think so much about danger every time we get into our cars, for example.”
An inability to cope with uncertainty
Lots of people struggle with generalized anxiety disorder—a condition characterized by persistent and disproportionate concern over any number of issues in daily life. One thing these people might face is what’s called an intolerance of certainty. Since the pandemic is largely qualified by uncertainty (ie. when it will end), a sign you’re experiencing anxiety is excessive worrying, and doing everything you can think of to escape, avoid or eliminate that uncertainty.
How to overcome your COVID-19 burnout
If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms, here are some ways you can begin to try to address them:
Establish a structure and routine — and stick to it
With the structure of the workday removed for many, you may be finding it difficult to retrieve the rhythm that ordinarily carries you through the week. Dr. Söchting says that one of the best ways to address COVID-19 burnout is treating your days as though you were still going to your job site in the morning — waking up at a consistent time, getting dressed, having breakfast, etc. It can help you to regain your balance. The key is creating a routine, both morning and night, so the days feel less shapeless, and you aren’t spending them just lounging in your pajamas, two winks away from dozing off.
Do the exercise you told yourself you’d do
Maybe you promised yourself at the very beginning of the pandemic that you’d work out every single day, and you’ve fallen short by more than a mile. (I have.) The thing is that most of us are probably getting less exercise than we’re used to, so we should be making a conscious effort not to neglect getting exercise — which, it bears repeating, can not only help to relieve stress, but also has a positive impact on mental health, memory, sleep quality and overall mood.
“It’s also important to support those who are still isolating at home, afraid of going out, and encourage them to get their exercise in” Dr. Söchting says.
Find meaningful pursuits outside of work life
“We have to accept that our lives are much smaller right now,” Dr. Söchting says, “and, to make up for it, we should be seeking out some joy and meaning outside of our work lives.” Life can become monotonous when there’s very little you’re allowed to do, so finding new and meaningful hobbies can help to add some colour to your day. “Maybe that’s learning to cook certain things, or trying to learn a new language on Duolingo, or something as simple as working on a puzzle.”
Not oversleeping, but not under-sleeping either
“We don’t need as much sleep right now as we usually do,” Söchting says. Since much of our time, for the most part, is being spent at home, she says we might not be tiring ourselves out as much as we ordinarily would.
The key, she says, is to get enough sleep — between seven and nine hours a night — but not too much: anything over nine is oversleeping, and won’t make you feel well-rested. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, there are plenty of things to try: reading, meditating, showering, the “4-7-8” breathing method. “If you’re trying to fall asleep and, after 20 minutes, you still aren’t there, get out of your bed and try a calming activity, or a relaxation exercise,” Söchting says.
Making a conscious effort to connect with friends and family
The pandemic doubles as a crisis in intimacy. We miss our friends. And while virtual connection can never substitute the physical kind, it doesn’t make it any less necessary to our health. “Having less social interactions is especially devastating for those who might not have thriving home or family lives,” Dr. Söchting says. “We have lots of research showing that the fewer groups you feel you are connected with, the poorer your mental health — especially if you’re already vulnerable to depression.”
If your mood has been low, consider making an effort to reach out to friends and family more often, whether through video chats or physically distanced hangouts.