Combating pandemic fatigue

Marie Tae McDermott and Jill Cowan, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 24 2020 02:15 AM

A nurse who cares for COVID-19 patients sits in a massage chair in an “oasis room” at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del. on April 30, 2020. Erin Schaff, The New York Times/file

In the beginning of the pandemic we rallied, sending loved ones rolls of toilet paper and handing out fruit to delivery drivers. Now, living under a blanket of restrictions has become a way of life, a daily routine of risk calculation and caution. But cases are once again spiking around the world, and many people have what some call “pandemic fatigue.”

As my colleagues wrote, “The rituals of hope and unity that helped people endure the first surge of the virus have given way to exhaustion and frustration.” Everywhere you turn there’s a feeling of burnout, which is even more pronounced for essential and front-line workers.

The stakes are high, especially with the holiday season approaching. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California recently laid out a new set of guidelines around mass gatherings, limiting them to no more than three households at a time.

I spoke to Elissa Epel, professor at the University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, about how to prevent pandemic fatigue from slipping into unsafe behavior. Epel also curates a website on coping resources during the pandemic.

Here are some of the main points from our conversation.

Stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression are on the rise.

A recent study showed that depression rates spiked three times higher during the pandemic, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of US adults reported problems with anxiety, depression or substance abuse in late June.

However, Epel said that psychological distress conditions that look like depression and anxiety are not necessarily psychiatric disorders in the classic sense.

“It’s a normal response to what’s happening,” she said.

Adverse mental health effects are linked to being in a chronically stressful situation, especially for people whose lives have been severely disrupted by illness, financial stress or essential work.

Pandemic burnout, in which essential and service workers are stressed to the point that they can no longer do their jobs, can also happen as a result of caring for others. Epel said that for these individuals, they cannot continue to work in a system that creates burnout and cure themselves at the same time.

“The system has to find ways to really help people restore and have more time for self-care,” she said.

The kind of fatigue that the general population has experienced can be linked to physical health conditions or to shared psychological stressors. Epel suggests limiting exposure to upsetting news and being kind to yourself and others who are experiencing emotional distress.

There are things you can do to cope.

Everyone should think about what personal care means for themselves, Epel said. She said this definition was different for everyone. For some, it may mean getting lots of quality sleep. For others, personal care means long walks in nature or exercise.

Preventing long periods of sedentary behavior can also help most people.

“Creating body stress that we then recover from actually in the end creates more energy, not less,” she said. “Walking with a partner with a mask on is like solving two essential pandemic needs at once, social and physical.”

Flouting the rules will only make lockdowns more likely.

People may grow weary of social distancing and decide to go back to living the way they did before the pandemic.

Epel cautions against this.

“It’s an understandable response, but it is far from a solution. If anything, it’s going to stretch out our period of social stress and fatigue,” she said.

Instead, she encourages people to be physically and materially prepared, which is actually a healthy way of coping. Being prepared helps people gain a little sense of control over a wholly unpredictable situation.

Epel wrote in an op-ed that moderate anxiety is actually good, because it propels us to take self-protective measures like washing hands and mask wearing.

“Social distancing is anxiety reduction,” she said. “Anxiety right now is normal. And it’s good because it’s serving a function. It’s driving us to be safe, driving us to adapt, coping, keeping socially distanced.”

Prepare yourself for a new way of life.

According to Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the same forces that are worsening climate change are also increasing the risk of future pandemics. The pandemic has challenged our way of life in a way that no other event has. But Epel said she thought there was great potential for positive change that can happen as a result.

“If the glass is half empty and half full, it’s both,” she said. “We have had tremendous loss and irreversible changes, but that is only half of the picture.”