How to Combat COVID Fatigue and Pandemic Stress

If you've found yourself washing your hands less often, attending large gatherings when you shouldn't, or being lax about wearing your mask, you're not alone. Deemed the term "COVID fatigue," this behavior refers to our collective tiredness of being cooped up, being careful, and being scared. This collective fatigue has made some people more careless-- one reason for a rise in COVID-19 cases across the country. As we head into the winter months and potentially stricter precautions, it's more important than ever that we face, address, and cope with COVID fatigue. The first step? Acknowledging that abnormal is the new normal.

Abnormal is the new normal. But that doesn't meant we can't have a plan to help ourselves and others. It starts with understanding why so many people feel so frazzled. Knowing why we feel like everything is abnormal can help us feel more normal.

There are two kinds of stress that have long-term effects on our mental well-being and physical health- intense stress and prolonged stress, says Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Add on the uncertainty of, well, just about everything, and you've got a pretty big stressor.

“We have unknowns in every part of our lives,” Hermanson says. "At the same time, a lot of the things we generally do to cope, the things we enjoy and that give life meaning, have changed or been put off limits.”

The things we used to do to for fun and get our minds off of stress-- concerts, sports games, even just going to the gym--don't look the same these days. It's time to accept that abnormal is the new normal and find other ways to cope with stress and anxiety.

No one knows for sure when the pandemic will be over. In order to reduce stress and avoid long-term effects on our mental well-being and physical health, we need to develop coping skills: 

  • Exercise: This is one of the best things we can do for coping. Any exercise – even a simple walk – can help tremendously. It releases endorphins and gets some of the adrenaline out when frustration builds up. 
  • Talking: This is super helpful for coping with stress too. Just saying it out loud is important. Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. It’s like trying to hold a beachball underwater – eventually you lose control and it pops out. You can’t control where it goes or who it hits.
  • Constructive thinking: We often believe it is the situation that causes our feelings, but actually, our feelings come from our thoughts about the situation. We can’t change the situation, but we can adjust our thinking. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Remind yourself you're doing the best you can.
  • Mindfulness and gratitude: These two practices can seem intimidating if you don't do them regularly. But the more you do them, the easier they get. Try being present in the moment. We project a lot of unnecessary anxiety on ourselves by projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. Just things day by day.

Integrating these four key coping skills into your everyday life is crucial, but you can also start by just being aware of your stress and being easy on yourself.

“We have a tendency to get down on ourselves,” Hermanson says. “But be aware, if you’re someone who never cries and suddenly you’re in tears, or if small things make you super angry – those are signs you need to reach out and talk to somebody.”

Still, the reality is that the pandemic isn't over and we're constantly being inundated with information that can be scary and stressful. So- how do we take in information without being overwhelmed by it?

It's not easy, Hermanson says. “Warnings and numbers have been swamping us for months, but it’s important to hear them. It helps to focus on controlling what you can control: What am I hearing from the experts that I can make use of? How do I clean, wash my hands, behave at work so I can protect myself and my family?”

Another tactic for stress reduction? Limit or avoid the things that trigger fearful or angry responses. For many people, that trigger is the news and social media.

“If listening to the news is hard, just do it a little and limit it to trusted, responsible sources,” Hermanson says. “Social media plays a role in this. Don’t get caught up trading posts with people you disagree with. It will just make you more angry or scared.”

COVID fatigue is real, but we shouldn't let it be the reason for a rise in COVID-19 cases. It's time to accept that abnormal is the new normal and use exercising, talking, constructive thinking, mindfulness and gratitude to cope with pandemic stress. Integrating these key skills into your every day life, along with avoiding things that trigger fearful or angry responses and having more overall self-awareness, can help make everything that's going on seem a little more manageable.