The American Psychological Association (APA) defines burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others,” according to licensed psychologist C.C. Cassell, PsyD. It’s caused, she says, by “performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”
Burnout manifests in any number of ways. “People often first notice changes in their physiological state, meaning that they report feeling physically unwell, tense, chronically fatigued, etc,” Dr. Cassell explains. “In addition, those experiencing burnout may find that others express concern about them as they are notably more irritable, detached, and less motivated. Finally, those experiencing burnout may find themselves feeling less hopeful and optimistic, less interested in things that typically appeal to them, and less fulfilled.”
This phenomenon isn’t unique to the pandemic; people often experience burnout at various stages of their lives. But the pandemic is creating a form of burnout that’s more widespread, and potentially more difficult to treat. Below, experts weigh in on why this seems to be afflicting many of us at this particular point in the pandemic as well as what we can do about it to regain our joie de vivre (or, at the very least, the fortitude to keep going).
The pandemic is creating a form of burnout that’s more widespread, and potentially more difficult to treat.
Why we’re burning out now
Despite the fact that we’re in a better position than we were, say, six months ago—solely in terms of having obtained a means to end this pandemic, e.g. the vaccine—it actually makes a lot of sense that many of us are reaching a breaking point right about now.
According to survival psychologist John Leach, PhD, having a specific endpoint in sight is critical to making it through a situation like ours, and Cassell agrees. “One thing that typically helps us cope with a stressful experience is knowing that it is temporary and will end at some point,” she says. “What makes this pandemic particularly stressful is that there is no specified end date.” And while technically we have a better understanding of when things will resume some sense of normalcy than we did for most of last year, the pandemic is worse than ever, experts are forever ringing alarm bells over new COVID-19 strains, vaccine rollout has been clumsy at best, and most of us don’t have any clue when the shots will even be available to us, or when the safety of herd immunity will be reached. In other words, we don’t feel like there’s a clear endpoint to which we just need to survive, which is weakening our stamina.
And the pandemic isn’t the only “extra” thing burdening us, either. “In addition, there has been a host of misinformation circulating, and we’ve had a host of other stressors including the recent terrorist attack on our capital and an ongoing, seemingly never-ending battle for racial justice,” says Cassell. “So even though we are 10 months into the pandemic, we haven’t had time to adjust to this ‘new normal’ as the conditions surrounding the pandemic have been in constant flux.”
The effectiveness of our coping mechanisms may be wearing off, too, explains psychiatrist Jessica Gold, MD, MS. “Even if you had really effective coping skills [at the beginning], it has been a really long time, and sometimes those coping skills stop working,” she says. If this were to happen in normal times, we’d reach out to friends or lean on our social lives, but that’s not an easy option under these circumstances. “We don’t have the ability to turn to these classic distraction techniques that would be the easy way to compensate for the individual failures of our coping skills,” Dr. Gold says.
She also points out that winter weather isn’t helping. “Depending on where you live, it’s become harder to leave the house and go for a walk and meet friends or do exercise outside,” Dr. Gold says. “Seeing humans outside gave you a change of scenery and caused a shift to your mood. So simply being in your house all day and trying to think of what works [in terms of activities] there, and because it’s cold and dark and there’s not much else to do… that part has also made it additionally hard for people.”
11 ways to alleviate burnout and the “Pandemic Wall”
There are no quick fixes when it comes to improving our physical and mental states, says Cassell, and burnout can be particularly tricky to combat. This is even more true given its source in this circumstance—the pandemic—because we have no means for changing it. (As opposed to, for example, burnout caused by a job which you can vacation from or leave once a new job is in place.) Still, there are things we can do to ease its strain, and slowly but surely bring ourselves back to life again; below, 11 such ideas.
1. Make a list of coping strategies
One strategy Dr. Gold is fond of recommending to her clients is making a list of coping skills that work for you, or even just of things that bring you joy. “It can be helpful for times when you’re anxious or sad to go, ‘These are the things I like or that I can try’,” she says. “It may feel almost silly that you would need to write it down, but when you’re heightened in your emotional mind, it can be hard to remember that you like anything.”
Your list could include a TV show you like, a bath, calling a certain person, playing a game, etc, says Dr. Gold. And because not everything works in every situation, the list can help you pick something appropriate to the moment and/or help you to try more than one option if the first doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.
Dr. Gold also thinks it’s important to remind people that coping mechanisms which work for some don’t work for all, so there’s no reason to force one—or beat yourself up over it—if it’s not for you. “Just because your sister or mom or friend likes mindfulness, doesn’t mean you have to put that on your list,” she says.
2. Make changes to your to-do list
One of the results of burnout—a lack of productivity—can also feed burnout. Dr. Gold says a lot of her patients have been upset about not getting enough done, whether it’s because of burnout, which lowers concentration and motivation, or because there are too many things distracting us (e.g. working from home, anxiety, childcare, etc.). The first step to coping with this feeling, she says, is to just admit that less is going to get done, and that you have to be okay with that.
Then, what she suggests is actually adding things to your to-do list, but doing so in way that makes it easier for you to check them off. So basically, this will mean making each item on your to-do list smaller than normal, e.g. a piece of a bigger task that’d normally be on the list. “It makes your list way longer but at the end of the day, you can look back and feel like you did something, which is super important during the pandemic—otherwise you can feel like you’re never getting anything done which can lead to a lot of negative self-talk,” says Dr. Gold.
To that end, she says it’s important to focus on speaking to yourself like you would a friend right now. “Pause and go, ‘I would not talk to somebody I love like that’,” she suggests. “It’s important to put it through that filter if you can, because we are pretty mean to ourselves when we look at our productivity.”
3. Make it a point to socialize
In pre-pandemic days, we used to have what Dr. Gold calls, “stumbling social lives,” where some things were planned but others we could stumble into, e.g. lunch with co-workers. Now, there is less opportunity for those spontaneous hangs, which means we need to be more proactive because many of us are not getting enough social interaction. “We need connection,” she says. And, she specifies, we need connection beyond text messaging.
Plus, she says, we’ll feel better if we make plans, because it gives us something to look forward to. “It’s important to have something planned that makes you feel like one day is different than the next, so you don’t feel like it’s a perpetual groundhog’s day,” says Dr. Gold.
Now, there is less opportunity for those spontaneous hangs, which means we need to be more proactive because many of us are not getting enough social interaction.
4. Install self-care measures around news consumption and social media use
While she would never tell people not to stay informed or to avoid social media—she thinks both are critical right now, and notes that our ability to connect virtually through the latter is a blessing in the pandemic—Dr. Gold does think that it might make sense to create some parameters around use. “If you’re watching and scrolling and noticing that you’re clenching or grinding your teeth and getting more angry and anxious and your emotions are getting really heated, take a break,” she says.
You should also limit the sources you peruse to those you trust, if possible, and setting time boundaries helps, too. “One of the easiest things to do is try not to do it right before bed if you can,” she says. Instead, she recommends her own strategy, which is listening to a completely non-related-to-the-news podcast or reading a non-stressful book. “That way I don’t feel like the last thing I do before I go to bed is read about politics and get angry.”
5. Share your experiences
Vega’s tweet on pandemic burnout has been liked nearly 70,000 times, which suggests a lot of people related to her sentiments, and Cassell says it can be likewise therapeutic for you to share your experience with others. “Acknowledging burnout is helpful in a number of ways,” she explains. “Most importantly it breaks the cycle of isolation that often accompanies burnout. Talking to compassionate and empathic others about how you feel opens the door to have your experience normalized, which helps us feel less alone. Acknowledging that you are experiencing burnout is the first step to end the cycle of suffering in silence so many of us find ourselves trapped in.”
6. Look for small moments to enliven you
While stopping to smell the roses is a bit of a cliché, clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, suggests it may actually be a small step toward reducing your burnout. “Find ways to restore yourself during the day,” she says. Take time to savor your coffee or lunch, or other small pleasures. Stop to play with your pets for a few minutes. Be in the moment, especially when the moment feels good.”
If you don’t happen upon enough of these small experiences, she recommends mindfully creating them. “Put beautiful, calming, or stimulating experiences into your regular day,” she says. Specifics will differ depending on the individual, but one easy example she gives it to add more beautiful and meaningful objects to your workspace.
7. Let yourself out of your cage
Most of us aren’t used to being as constricted to our homes. Even if you do get out, you’re likely not getting out nearly as much as you used to, which isn’t helping your burnout. (I don’t know about you, but I’d like to never see the inside of my apartment again when this is all over!). Daramus recommends remedying this to some degree by finding a safe way to move around so you don’t feel trapped. “[Take] a long walk, run, or drive or [go] rock climbing, hiking, or stair-climbing in a skyscraper with a fantastic view at the top,” she suggests.
8. Do something that makes you feel more like yourself
Maybe you always wore sweatpants daily and showered only occasionally, but if you didn’t, maybe… don’t. “Reclaim some part of your life so that it feels like yours again, like wearing beautiful clothes even if no one will ever see them,” Daramus suggests. You obviously don’t have to make this an everyday occurrence, but once in awhile, it might help. And it doesn’t need to have anything to do with dressing up, either; whatever makes you feel a little bit more like your pre-pandemic self again works.
9. Make plans for after the pandemic
While we don’t know exactly when the pandemic will be “over,” Daramus says it’s important to make future plans for that eventuality you can look forward to—even if they’re not set in stone, date-wise. This, she explains, will serve to remind you that things will be better, and that you’ll be there to enjoy it when they are. You could book a refundable International trip for sometime later this year or in 2022, for example, or even just start to think about things you will do then that you always said you would do before but didn’t, e.g. go mountain climbing, learn to ski, visit your grandmother more often, etc.
On a similar note, Daramus says that you should pay attention to anything that encourages you regarding the brightness of the future. “Stop to appreciate your hope spots,” she says. This could include positive news about the President Biden’s pandemic plans, a friend’s engagement that will likely result in a wedding you can actually attend next year, etc. For peak effectiveness, make a list and add to it as new “hope spots” arise.
10. Take control where you can
While any or all of the above may help you experience incremental improvement in your well-being, as Dr. Cassell pointed out earlier, there is no easy cure for burnout. “Our health and wellbeing are impacted by the daily decisions we make moment to moment, and these cumulative decisions we make collectively work together to yield a result,” she says.
So, it’s important to work to slow down and reflect on or evaluate the choices we’re making in order to increase awareness around the impact those choices have on our well-being. “We have to choose to engage in the actions that we find are beneficial to our well-being and work to reduce or eliminate the actions that are detrimental to our well-being,” she says. “Many of us, now more than ever, are impacted by conditions that are outside of our control. As a result, it is all the more important to be aware of what conditions and responses are within our control and to exercise the power and agency that we do have to make choices and decisions that protect and improve our well-being and contribute positively to the well-being of those around us.”
11. Seek professional help
We are living through unprecedented times filled with unprecedented stress, which means you might be having unprecedented difficulty managing your mental health. “A big thing for me is that there’s no ‘wrong’ time to ask for help,” says Dr. Gold. “If you feel like you could benefit from talking to [a mental health professional], you probably could—I think that’s a very big part of self-care.”
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