I remember the day clearly — it was a Wednesday night, March 11th to be exact, and my creative writing class had just wrapped up. My husband and I were sitting at our kitchen table in our tiny New York City apartment in Morningside Heights when all of a sudden my husband broke the news that Tom Hanks had contracted coronavirus and the NBA had shut down. At that moment we looked at each other, fear in our eyes, coming to terms with the fact COVID-19 was a much bigger deal than either of us realized. If Tom Hanks could catch Coronavirus, none of us were safe.
Things escalated quickly. Nine days later, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, like many governors across the country, put a shelter-in-place order into effect for New York and the city that never sleeps became a ghost town.
In New York City, you couldn’t escape the reality of COVID-19 if you wanted to. Sirens blared 24/7, helicopters buzzed overhead, the streets were covered in discarded surgical gloves and face masks and a morbid heaviness rippled throughout the city. As the days passed and the death toll skyrocketed, my mood, my spirits, and my ability to cope with life began to dwindle. Without knowing it at the time, I was suffering from COVID fatigue.
What is COVID fatigue?
While not a diagnosable disorder or officially cataloged in the DSM-5, according to Talkspace therapist Catherine Richardson, LPC, the most common signs of, what many of us are calling COVID fatigue, include avoiding the news; experiencing hypoarousal, which is a decrease in your body’s normal response to stimuli; or hyperarousal, which is an increase in your body’s response to stimuli. Richardson also points to frequent mood swings, irritability when faced with an obstacle caused by COVID-19, and an inability to sleep due to overthinking as frequent signs of COVID fatigue.
Reflecting on my own experience, I rotated through all the symptoms that Richardson describes within any given week, sometimes any given day. There were days I was so scared, I barely left my bed. Other days I was so anxious, I couldn’t sleep. I avoided the news, snapped at people I cared about, felt frustrated beyond belief that COVID was ruining all of the plans I made for 2020, and teetered between wanting more alone time than ever before and so lonely my body ached.
If you are in a similar boat, here are four ways to handle COVID fatigue:
- Take Things One Day at a Time
For a while, I was so overcome with grief, anxiety, and sadness about COVID-19 and how it was impacting our world that I more or less shut down. It was hard to imagine how we would ever recover from such a tragedy, how we’d ever be able to return to some semblance of normal. “For clients who are feeling hopeless, frustrated, scared and uneasy,” explained Richardson, “it’s best to put the timeline of the pandemic in perspective.” She recommends reminding yourself that this is one small piece of your life. While it may feel overwhelming and never-ending right now, it will pass. “Like many things in history,” she reassured me, “it will come to an end or at least dissipate in severity.”
Take things one day at a time. If you find your thoughts spiraling, Richardson finds it helpful to make a list of what you have power over and what you can’t. “Focus your thoughts on the things you can control,” she offered, “and if you notice your mind wanders to the things you can’t control, give yourself two minutes to think about them and then try a relaxation technique such as meditation to distract yourself.”
- Ground Yourself in the Here And Now
In the first few months of the pandemic, I had to double-down on my self-care routine. It took more effort than usual to regulate my nervous system and feel well enough to work and take care of daily tasks. One of my non-negotiable daily self-care practices was meditating. Richardson agrees that meditating each day will help ground you in the present. “Start off with 2-3 minutes and then work your way up to 15 minutes,” Richardson suggests. She also finds it helpful to begin and end your day with a few yoga poses to help your body release stress.
- Don’t Judge Yourself
It goes without saying that this is a particularly difficult time, especially if you are single and living alone during COVID-19. If you feel lonely or upset, don’t be afraid to name those feelings. Show yourself some compassion and try to avoid judging yourself for feeling whatever you might be feeling. As Richardson says, “give yourself permission to feel the loss of the relationships you used to enjoy.”
- Look Inward
One of the reasons why the beginning of COVID hit me so hard was because it forced me to take a hard look at my life and reflect on what was going well and what I wanted to change. Without so many distractions and the hustle and bustle of regular life, I finally had the time to look inward and ask myself the big questions: “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with my life?”
I am not alone in this self-discovery process. Richardson also observed that COVID seemed to have given people the space to think about things we’re usually too busy to consider. “Having more time at home has illuminated areas of growth for many, personally and societally,” she said, “and thankfully, people are rising to the challenge of becoming a better person and making our society better as a whole.” Richardson believes this is why there’s been such a surge in telehealth needs. “The increased self-awareness has empowered individuals to do what they may not have had the courage to do before,” Richardson explained. “They are able to see themselves for who they really are —and the world for what it really is — and do something about it.”
This is a challenging time for all of us. We are coping in different ways, experiencing myriad hardships. At the same time, there is a sense of unity and relief that comes from remembering that we are in this together. Hopefully, when this passes, we will all come out of it with added clarity on who we are as individuals, what’s important to us, and how we want to continue to live our lives.