Coronavirus fatigue mimics both extreme “down” emotions and “up” emotions at opposite ends of the bell curve of normal behavior. Here’s an explanation of what it is, why it’s dangerous, and how to survive it.
By Kat Forsythe, Therapist and Author
This is for those of us who are getting antsy. It’s getting old, this staying-at-home thing. People are beginning to fall into a psychological behavior we’re calling Coronavirus fatigue. Stay tuned. You’re about to hear that term bandied about everywhere.
Coronavirus fatigue is the mental exhaustion of staying at home and the waning discipline to stay quarantined to effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Coronavirus fatigue wears you down with the frustration of how-long-do-I-have-to-stay-locked-up-when-it’s-spring-and-I-deserve-to-play. It’s becoming an epidemic of its own as people succumb to “it’s not really that bad out there”. With unemployment growing exponentially in the US, food banks out of stock, the economy stuttering, and general free-floating anxiety about the inconvenience of it all, many people are resurrecting that powerful independent American spirit that fired up our forefathers and mothers to strike out from Europe and start their own country. That’s the spirit that settled the West, and traveled north to Alaska to a new frontier. Americans don’t like to be told they can’t do something. Americans are big on the “Can do!” of our founders.
Coronavirus Fatigue Sets In
Frustrated with strict orders to stay at home for weeks – watching the economy stagger and wanting to reclaim our full independence – some of us are exclaiming, “I’m an American! I can do what I want, and that overblown virus won’t be at my hairdresser/bowling alley/park/ beach/golf course anyway!” Problem is, we’re fighting an invisible foe, not conquering a physical roadblock. We’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone. We’re at war with an enemy we can’t see, hear, smell, taste, feel. That enemy is one notch above us on the food chain, and if we aren’t careful, cautious, and wise, that virus is going to eat us up just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water (to borrow a phrase from Jaws).
Are you off to the beach today where the surf is pounding, and you can capture that elated feeling of the sun on your shoulders, the wind in your hair, the aroma of sea surf in your nostrils? It sounds so perfect – and you might be just fine. However, there’s not a person alive who can predict whether the coronavirus will be brought to that beach today by an asymptomatic carrier. One thing is for sure: If you don’t go to the beach, you can’t get the virus from the surfer dude who’s carrying it. Is it really worth the risk – for you and your loved ones?
Without a vaccine, the only way to prevent this enemy from killing us and winning the war is to hide from it.
Hope Won’t Stop the Virus
Right now, we have no vaccine. We’re working on it. However, hope for a vaccine or declaring “we’re almost there” or rosy scenarios of recovery doesn’t scare the virus. If hope for tomorrow is your only defense as you defiantly head off to the beach today, please know that you’re playing Russian Roulette. You’re still a mouth-watering meal or free ride for Mr./Ms. C. Virus, who is eager to meet you and your family.
Should you avoid the beach and skip the haircut even though you’re starting to look like a mountain man? Ask a frontline worker who has watched one of us gasp our last excruciating breath or endure a fever so high we become delirious. Ask a grocery clerk who faces unknown carriers of the virus every day, then – perhaps because of a lack of protective gear or safety measures – takes the virus home to his elderly grandparents, wife, and children.
The American spirit is indefatigable. We can beat this! That’s how we sacrificed and built bombers in World War II. We rallied behind the war effort because we were united, determined, focused, and powerful. We want to win. We want to be the best and the strongest. We want our freedom and our independence. But when did independence and freedom become synonyms for selfish and entitled? What happened to that dedicated war effort now that our enemy is cutting a deadly swath across our country? And what happened to the spirit behind JFK’s famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”?
Surviving Coronavirus (and Coronavirus Fatigue)
What can you do for your country? Stay at home and hide from the virus – and if you must go out (to walk the dog, buy groceries, or to work), wear a mask and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water when you return! That’s the winning strategy right now. Endure the coronavirus fatigue. Stay home unless your work is deemed essential. If it isn’t, be thankful: it means you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way and you won’t become a quick snack for the virus. Resist the selfish urge to blast out of the house only to bring the virus home to your family. Let the scientists do their job. Learn that patience will win this game, not impulsiveness. This is a nasty virus, a sneaky enemy, and a formidable foe. Underestimating this enemy is a fatal mistake.
Here’s how you will survive.
First, understand the impact of Coronavirus fatigue. What does it look like? How does it play out for you?
Here’s how I’ve experienced Coronavirus fatigue – both in my clients and in my own family. It mimics both extreme “down” emotions and “up” emotions at opposite ends of the bell curve of normal behavior.
On the “down” side, coronavirus fatigue mimics depression, anxiety, anger, sadness, and loneliness. It doesn’t mean you have those conditions, but your brain is weary and desperate to get out of this prison of limited activity. So, it pouts. Voila! Depression. Is it fixable? Yes, but you must be willing to take an active role in your own self messaging and drop any victim mentality. (“This is happening to me. I’m stuck. I can’t do anything about this.”) I’ll give you suggestions on how to do this, below.
The “up” side signals of Coronavirus fatigue include exhilaration, giddiness, silliness, elitism, condescension, joy at “beating the system”, and rationalizing to get what you want. These create cognitive dissonance in the brain – knowing the facts and ignoring them. It plays out as nervous energy, which is just as dangerous as the “down” emotions.
The best plan is to walk the middle ground between self-pity and arrogance.
Coronavirus Fatigue Antidote #1: Fix Your Own Mask First
Like the oxygen mask on an airplane, you must attend to your own well-being before helping others. That means awareness of when you’re going down so you can interrupt the downward spiral. Learn to self-soothe without self-medicating. Have a private place in your home that is just for you. Go there or go outside (in your yard if you have one, on a walk staying at least six feet away from other people if you don’t). Take some deep breaths. Listen to your own thoughts, and then:
- Get the facts. Fact: you won’t be in this Coronavirus situation forever. If you break the quarantine, what might you be sacrificing? If you don’t break the quarantine, what will you be gaining?
- Understand that your brain believes everything you tell it. Be careful what you say to yourself. If you catastrophize, your brain will see the world through drama and fear. If you rationalize, the brain struggles between your truth and your actions. To find balance, repeat positive self-messages, such as: “I can get through this just fine,” “I can distract myself from fear or boredom,” “I will neither read nor heed advice from unqualified sources,” “I will examine facts from reputable sources, and then I will make a plan.” “As what we know about the virus changes, I will change my behaviors accordingly,” “I am willing and able to sacrifice to keep this nation powerful, strong, and healthy.” Be careful of rationalizations such as “I deserve to play golf/go sailing/hike/go to the office.” What are you risking? You must weigh the options. Remember that this virus doesn’t care what you think you “deserve.”
- Know that “Idleness aversion” is a real thing, and you need to counter it. No one likes to be idle for long. How can you feel forward motion without sacrificing social distancing or without leaving home?
Coronavirus Fatigue Antidote #2. Make a Plan to Achieve Some Normalcy in Abnormal Times
- Create a routine – and stick to it! Outline your days and your week. When will you get up? When will you work in your home office? When will you exercise? When will you eat? Set a time for getting dressed: I suggest no later than 8:30 a.m. Put on decent clean clothes – a different outfit every day. Follow your regular routine as much as possible.
- Join or create a regular video call to check in with colleagues. This could be a virtual lunch with staff, or a weekly “Happy Hour” with members of your local Bar Association.
- Be aware of Coronavirus updates by researching respected news outlets or watching reputable news channels – but limit yourself to one hour per day. Be aware that TV journalism is crafted to get you hooked; more than 1 hour and you’re living for the drama.
- Make a list of what you can do during the quarantine. Schedule time blocks into your day/week to complete projects.
- Create a Go-To list for raising your spirits. Here are a few ideas to move into a positive frame of mind. Decide which appeal to you and then do them.
- Contact old friends via email (good), phone (better), or video call (best). These are desperate times. Your friends are lonely, too. Call them.
- Donate money to the nonprofits struggling to stay alive. Your local Food Bank is a great place to start; as domestic violence worsens during quarantine, shelters for victims of domestic violence desperately need funds to cope with the sharp increase of people needing their services.
- Chose one or more or the “Quick Tricks” (below) and work time to practice them into your schedule.
Quick Tricks to Pull You out of a Coronavirus Fatigue Slump
- Listen to your favorite music. What is it? Cue it up.
- Sing. It soothes your soul. Close the door. Turn up the tunes. Blast out the lyrics that speak to you! My personal favorite is The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
- Drink a glass of water. Anxiety can lead to dehydration. Gulp it down and get hydrated. You’ll feel so much better. A minimum of six glasses a day is a good number to shoot for.
- Focus on a game or take a Masterclass at www. masterclass.com. The card game “Solitaire” was made for times like these. Play online games with others: from poker to chess to checkers. Learn a magic trick (or at least how it works). Many Wii games (tennis, for example) can be played by yourself.
- Slow your breath. Take deep breaths. In to the count of 8 (slowly). Out to the count of 8. Repeat 5 times.
- Eat some protein. Low blood sugar can be a trigger for emotional upset.
- Write about what matters to you. Do it in a journal every day, if you can. Journaling gets the negativity out of your brain and dumps it on the written page. You will find it very cleansing – mentally and emotionally.
- Express your thanks and gratitude. Make a list of what and whom you’re thankful for. Do it every night before you drift off. You’ll sleep better, too.
Coronavirus Fatigue Is Testing Us
The Coronavirus is testing where our independent spirit starts and stops, our loyalty and dedication to this great country, and our ability to sacrifice for the greater good. How much are you willing to tolerate so we can end this deadly threat? If we think of it as a war effort (and it is), we must harken back to the ways in which our grandparents and great-grandparents won the wars – how they were willing to sacrifice so much, including their lives. Together, we can do this – but only when we’re willing to let go of individual desires and make a plan together to stop feeding new victims to the virus so that it dies for lack of a host.
Take a deep breath right now, then take another. Stay at home. Use these strategies to stay beyond the virus’s reach. This may be a long journey. Be brave. Be informed. Be safe. Learn the lessons this virus is teaching us so we emerge from our cocoons wiser, perhaps a little less selfish, and with a better understanding of what makes life worth living. And pray for a vaccine so that interacting with others doesn’t turn into a death sentence.
Kat Forsythe (MSW) has more than 25 years of credentialed experience as a therapist, coach, and communication/relationship consultant – including divorce recovery. A respected motivational speaker and author, she was a special consultant for young attorneys dealing with client personal issues – especially divorce – for the Cincinnati Bar Association. www.katforsythe.com
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