'COVID fatigue' is hitting hard. Fighting it is hard, too, says UC Davis Health psychologist

It's time to develop coping skills, which include exercise and talking about our fears and stress


One description trending now is, “COVID fatigue.” It’s real and it’s strong.

Both the intensity and the length of time of COVID-19 stress takes a toll on everyone.
Both the intensity and the length of time of COVID-19 stress takes a toll on everyone.

We’re tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared. Our collective fatigue is making some people careless – That, coupled with the highly contagious Delta variant, has contributed to the sharp increase in COVID-19 in California and throughout the U.S.

However, facing this fatigue is important for our personal health and for beating the coronavirus that has shaken American life so completely. Many people understand this, which adds to their exhaustion and stress.

“This is a real challenge,” said Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “There are no easy solutions.”

Abnormal is the new normal

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have paths to help ourselves and others. It starts with understanding why so many people feel frazzled. Knowing why we feel that everything is abnormal can help us feel normal.

“We know there are two kinds of stress that have long-term effects on our mental well-being and physical health – intense stress and prolonged stress,” Hermanson said. “We have both.”

Add to that the uncertainly about, well, almost everything.

“We have unknowns in every part of our lives,” she said. “At the same time, a lot of the things we generally do to cope, the things we enjoy and that give life meaning, have changed or been put off limits.”

The stages of disaster stress

There is research that defines the stages of stress on communities from disasters. If it makes anyone feel better, as a society, we are right on target.

Early, during or right after a disaster, communities tend to pull together. People support each other and create a sense of community bonding, Hermanson said. Think back to the first weeks of the stay-at-home orders when everyone in neighborhoods waved to everyone else.

“Eventually, that heroic spirit wears thin as the difficulties and stress build up. That’s when we hit the disillusionment phase,” Hermanson said. “We lose our optimism and start to have negative or angry reactions. We ask, ‘What are they doing to fix this? How long will this last?’”

That’s about where we stand now as a society. “Many people are exhausted by it all,” she said. “Some are saying they don’t care if they get COVID-19. They’d rather risk getting sick than stay home or be careful. Others have simply stopped listening to health leaders and science.”

This phase could last a while, in part because the disaster – the COVID-19 pandemic – is still going on.

“This pandemic is like nothing we’ve experienced before, and it’s not over yet.”

How to cope

“We can help ourselves,” Hermanson said. “We’ve heard this before, but it’s true: It’s time to develop coping skills.” Those include:

  • Exercise: “It’s the No. 1 best thing we can do for coping,” she said. “Any exercise – even a simple walk – helps. It releases endorphins, gets some of the adrenaline out when the frustration builds up. Just getting out and moving can be really helpful for people.”
  • Talking: “This really helps, too. Just saying it out loud is important,” Hermanson said. “Find the right places and times, but do it. Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. It’s like trying to hold a beachball underwater – eventually you lose control and it pops out. You can’t control where it goes or who it hits.”
  • Constructive thinking: “We may think it is the situation that causes our feelings, but actually, our feelings come from our thoughts about the situation,” she said. “We can’t change the situation, but we can adjust our thinking. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Remind yourself, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’”
  • Mindfulness and gratitude: “The more you do this, the easier it gets,” she said. “Try being in the moment. You’re right here, in this chair, breathing and looking around. We put ourselves through a lot of unnecessary misery projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. For now, just take life day by day.”

She said coping can start by just being aware, and by being easy on yourself.

“We have a tendency to get down on ourselves,” Hermanson said. “But be aware, if you’re someone who never cries and suddenly you’re in tears, or if small things make you super angry – those are signs you need to reach out and talk to somebody.”

How do we take in COVID-19 information without being overwhelmed by it?

“This isn’t easy,” she said. “Warnings and numbers have been swamping us for months, but it’s important to hear them. It helps to focus on controlling what you can control: What am I hearing from the experts that I can make use of? What other steps can I take to protect myself and my family?”

Another move for stress reduction: Limit or avoid the things that trigger fearful or angry responses.

“Social media plays a role in this. Don’t get caught up trading posts with people you disagree with. It will just make you more angry or scared.”

“If listening to the news is hard, just do it a little and limit it to trusted, responsible sources,” Hermanson said. “Social media plays a role in this. Don’t get caught up trading posts with people you disagree with. It will just make you more angry or scared.”

How to reach people with COVID fatigue

One of the complications of the pandemic is that fatigue has made some people careless about masks and social distancing, which is one of the reasons COVID-19 cases have risen. With others, it’s not just carelessness, it’s angry resistance.

Are there ways to reach any of those people?

“That’s a huge challenge,” Hermanson said. “There are developmental stages to feeling our own mortality and the younger we are, the more distant it seems. For young folks, we can ask them to think about their families. With some, that may work.”

And it might help to remind people that they have the ability to help get back to all those things we’re missing by helping reduce the number of COVID-19 cases.

“If you want to go out, visit family, get back to work, eat out or travel again, there is only one thing you can do,” she said. “Follow the health guidelines: Get vaccinated, wear a mask, social distance, keep your social interactions outside, wash your hands and do everything else to stay safe. That’s how you take control.”

Another route combines role modeling with acts of kindness, she said.

“It helps some people just to see others wearing masks,” Hermanson said. “And when you see people wearing masks, tell them thank you in a genuine way. Positive reinforcement can be powerful.”

And what to do about people who are angrily resistant?

“I remind myself to control the things I can, and that I can’t control other people,” she said. “I say to myself, ‘For every person not masking, look at all the people who are.’”