Psychologist offers emotional triage for COVID fatigue – the disaster version
It just keeps getting worse. While the world fights COVID-19, California and the West are on fire and smoke often turns the sky a chilling, glowing red. People are forced indoors. We’re facing blackouts, heat waves, windstorms and evacuations. Plus, flu season waits at our door.
How does anyone cope? You’d like to step outside and scream, but you might choke on smoke or spread the coronavirus without your mask.
“We may feel like the world is broken,” said Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health clinical psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “Or that we’re in a horror movie. The world is just piling on.”
So how do we shore up our mental well-being as we face down the multiplying stresses of natural disasters, social and racial pain, economic fear and COVID-19, the worst pandemic in a century?
One start is to remember that we’re all feeling the strain. “What we’re dealing with now was unfathomable to us nine months ago,” Hermanson said. “Who isn’t feeling some level of helplessness or exhaustion?”
Where is the stress and COVID fatigue coming from? Every direction
It helps to remember that people experience two kinds of stress that affect our mental well-being and physical health – intense stress and prolonged stress. “We’ve been feeling both for months,” Hermanson said.
And there is research that defines the stages of communal reactions to the stress from disasters. Right after a disaster, we tend to bond as a community with a sort of heroic spirit. Think back to the first weeks of the stay-at-home orders when everyone waved to everyone.
“The heat and fires and smoke are not just new disasters, they’ve taken away some of our coping mechanisms … It feels like we keep coming up with coping solutions, then something shuts the door on them.”
Eventually, we get exhausted and wonder if things will ever get better. That’s the disillusionment stage, when the heroism is replaced by frustration. That defines a lot of reactions around Memorial Day, when people just bailed on COVID-19 cautions. The predictable result was a surge in cases and the renewal of our coronavirus restrictions.
“That made it hard for some people to cope, because it felt like there was no end in sight,” Hermanson said. “Now, the heat and fires and smoke are not just new disasters, they’ve taken away some of our coping mechanisms when we feel like we can’t be outdoors. We can’t go for a walk. We can’t sit with a friend in our yard. There is so much we can’t do.”
This piling on can lead to what she called a “learned helplessness” and depression. “It feels like we keep coming up with coping solutions, then something shuts the door on them,” Hermanson said. “You try and you try and you try, but nothing seems to give you the relief you’re looking for.”
There’s one more reason the stress is piling up. Blame it on the calendar.
“With each season, there’s another new loss,” she said. “Summer is ending and we’re feeling like we never got to decompress. Now school has started, with all the anxiety that’s bringing. Next, here come the holidays. I was in the store thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to Halloween?’” (For the record, Los Angeles County cancelled it with a Trick-or-Treat ban. More are likely to follow.)
COVID fatigue 2.0 triage
“With everything people are facing now, sometimes the best strategy is to just do the little things you need to do to survive,” Hermanson said. “When we feel like there is so much we can’t do, we have to shift our focus to what we can do.” Some of her suggestions:
- Take it day by day, or moment by moment: “Don’t look too far down the road,” she said. “Realize you will have good days and bad days, or good moments and bad moments. Realize these things can come in waves. It’s OK to say, ‘Right now, it’s bad.’ Just hang in there and ask, ‘What can I do to help feel better, or less bad?’”
- Be compassionate with yourself: Don’t expect perfection and don’t wallow in mistakes or missed chances. “Nobody prepared us for this,” Hermanson said. “There wasn’t a class in high school called How to Get Through a Pandemic. We’re all making this is up as we go along.”
- Be creative about finding things to look forward to: It could be a walk (when the smoke clears), or finding repeats of a TV series you love, or, as in Hermanson’s case, gathering a group of friends for a Zoom trivia night. “We write down our answers then show them. There’s a certain amount of honesty involved,” she said. “We have to remember the purpose is to have fun, not to win.”
- Find reasons to laugh: “There is a healthy physical reaction to laughing,” Hermanson said. “If nothing else works, put on your favorite comedy.”
- Exercise: “It’s still the No. 1 best thing we can do for coping,” she said. “It releases endorphins and gets some of the adrenaline out when the frustration builds up. Just go for a walk, if you can. If the smoke is bad, exercise indoors. Pull up a yoga or workout video. It helps so much.”
- Look back, but carefully: “Don’t think all the way back to last summer and those weeks you spent at the lake,” Hermanson said. “But think about the past few months. We’ve really come a good distance. If you had told me in March what we were about to go through, it would have felt overwhelming. But think about how far we’ve come. Look at all the things we’ve managed. Look at how resilient we’re becoming.”
COVID fatigue 2.0 recovery – talk with someone
“Just saying it out loud is important,” Hermanson said. “Find the right places and times, but do it.”
Talking with family or a friend can be a big help. And sometimes people would like something more and want to talk with a trained counselor.
“Getting started with counseling can feel daunting or even more stressful,” she said. So, her advice is to drop into a virtual group session.
“You can just listen and get a sense that you aren’t alone,” Hermanson said. “Or you can speak up when you’re comfortable.”
A number of organizations offer group sessions for their employees, including UC Davis Health through its Academic Staff and Assistance Program. Some public sites with groups or referrals include the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Sacramento branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
COVID fatigue 2.0 recovery – cut back or avoid social media
Seriously. Psychologists have said for years that seeing the fantastic adventures of other people can make us depressed about our seemingly simple lives. In this era of COVID-19 and piled-on disasters, social media can also prompt new layers of anger, resentment and stress.
“If we see someone out at a party not wearing a mask, it makes us angry, and maybe even jealous,” Hermanson said. “Or we can get caught up trading posts with angry people who are just trying to get a reaction. Instead, try using your social media just to connect with friends, and avoid surfing and finding posts that will make you miserable. Who needs that?”
COVID fatigue 2.0 recovery – bring back the communal bond
As we get stressed and emotionally exhausted, it can be harder to be compassionate toward others. But research shows that helping another person has a good impact on our own mental well-being.
“Sometimes, we can help ourselves as much as we help someone else,” Hermanson said. “It makes us feel good about ourselves and it reminds us that we aren’t helpless in the world. There are things we can do.”
“If you had told me in March what we were about to go through, it would have felt overwhelming. But think about how far we’ve come. Look at all the things we’ve managed. Look at how resilient we’re becoming.”
We can also try to rekindle the pandemic’s early-stage communal bonding. “Start by being the one to wave,” she said. “I find I’m constantly smiling at people and wondering why no one smiles back. It’s because they can’t see me smile through my mask, so I have to remember to be more demonstrative.”
It’s also possible fewer people wave now because seeing everyone in masks makes the world feel impersonal, the way it feels when we’re driving.
“So maybe make that a small project,” Hermanson said. “Just keep waving to people. Maybe we’ll all feel better.”
Try to stay positive
“I’ve been telling myself that we’ve been given a lot of opportunities to build resilience, and we will be incredibly resilient when we come out of this,” Hermanson said. “I know there will still be days when we pull the covers up over our heads, but there will also be days when we’ll laugh with our friends.”