By Susan Coale

For more than a year, people across the globe have been dealing with rapid, unexpected changes that have resulted in many losses. Besides the devastating loss of millions of lives due to COVID-19, other losses include:

  • Important events, such as weddings, family holidays and funerals.
  • Access to coping mechanisms, including gyms and social centers.
  • Connections to family and friends, especially physical touch.
  • A sense of community.
  • Travel, opportunities, finances, career moves and more.

These losses can drive a sense of depression. Uncertainty, loss of control, threats to our values, all contribute to anxiety and depression. This is pandemic fatigue, and it is real.

Recent surveys support the reality of pandemic fatigue. The National Health Interview Survey of Americans ages 18 and older reported that from January to June 2019, 8.2% expressed having symptoms of anxiety disorder. At the end of January 2021, a similar survey by the National Center for Health Statistics saw that number more than quadruple, with 36% reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder.

One of the current theories being used to look at how we respond to the trauma of the pandemic is called polyvagal theory. It’s a study of what our nervous system does to our bodies under stress.

Sometimes our brains choose immobilization. It’s like a cat appearing to drop dead at the vet’s office, even though they’re healthy. People don’t play dead, but instead become immobile by contracting down, pulling into themselves and isolating.

Another response is familiar to most – fight or flight. An example of fighting is refusing to comply with some of the COVID-19 restrictions. An example of taking flight is binging on Netflix or finding other distractions.

Obviously, becoming immobilized, fighting and fleeing don’t serve us well right now. A better coping mechanism is the social engagement system. As it is said, there is safety in numbers. A threat can be alleviated, and our overall sense of mental well-being can increase when we have that sense of connection and community.

The antidote to climbing out of pandemic fatigue is building and maintaining relationships. But how do we do that when it would seem restrictions are keeping us apart? Well, we know after more than a year of this that we can find ways to be together, but perhaps the more important connection is for individuals to reconnect with themselves.

Don’t avoid it. Don’t fight it. Don’t flee from it. Here are some of the things we do have control over.

Adjust your expectations of what you were going to do with all that “extra” time at home. Perhaps that list is unrealistic and a trusted friend could offer some perspective. Don’t “should” on yourself.

Do things that nourish your spirit and lift your mood – whether that’s a walk or a hobby like knitting or woodwork.

Set boundaries with your family in your home. Make space, both in time and place, for each person to have some alone time. 

Control the unexpected by adding structure to your day: Set morning and evening routine, schedule exercise, family games, date nights, etc. 

But don’t add so much structure that it is suffocating. Just enough to feel a sense of a little control. People, especially children, find comfort in knowing what is coming next.

Prioritize self-care: Eat well. Sleep regularly. Exercise. Get up from your workspace hourly to just move around.

Connect with others but avoid “doom scrolling” on social media. 

With any of the above, find a way to add purpose: Walk with a friend, chat with someone who is homebound, participate in a virtual event to raise money or awareness for something you believe in. Practice gratitude, savoring the good and minimizing the negative.

Most importantly: Get help if you need it. If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States at 1.800.273.8255. In Maryland, call 211 or text your ZIP code to 898-211 to be connected to crisis help resources.

Susan Coale, LCSW-C, Director of the Chesapeake Life Center can be contacted at [email protected] or by calling 888.501.7077.

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