How to beat 'pandemic fatigue'

It’s a fairly benign topic, tiredness. Something we all experience. Something well within the realms of normal. Nothing to be alarmed about.

But when stressors are chronic, there is a weariness that extends beyond normal tiredness, and takes us into the zone of fatigue – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual fatigue.

Physical tiredness is the easiest to see and remedy, usually on a daily basis.  After a day of activity, or even a day of inactivity, our bodies are needing rest and refreshment. When some of my family undertook the 34 km Mt Solitary walk last Saturday, we all knew they would be tired – really tired!  It was a long way, with some serious ascents and descents, that demanded sustained exertion and mental and physical perseverance.  Muscles complain after such treatment and ice baths were used.  But it’s all to be expected. A physical fatigue that they pretty much chose!

Emotional and spiritual tiredness are more subtle, more slippery, harder to pinpoint. I’m just a bit less motivated, a bit more irritable, a bit less patient, a bit less confident. More vulnerable to making bad decisions; more likely to indulge in unhealthy behaviour; more prone to irrational thinking.  There’s not one major thing wrong.  There are dozens of little things  – accumulated grief, fear across the community, multiple unknowns, frequent disappointments, scary evening news for month upon month – a chronic experience of low-level stress that is wearisome to our spirits and slowly inching to a deeper place of real fatigue. The psalms express this in several places (Ps 6:6, 69:3) – the deep tiredness of enduring unrelenting emotional distress, which can take us to the edges of depression and further.

As we enter the third year of this covid pandemic, there is increasing awareness of individual and community fatigue across our society. Our initial optimism is waning. Our tiredness is setting in and becoming familiar. And, I think, there are a few things we need to be careful of in this zone, and a few strategies to keep us afloat.

The Dangers of Emotional Fatigue

Emotional fatigue makes us vulnerable to a range of unhelpful things – so let me just mention the top three that I see in myself:  negativity, self-doubt and hopelessness.

Negativity can creep in ever so slowly, as I find myself noticing the cup half empty more often than I see it as half full! It’s whinging and complaining about the small things. It’s forgetting to be thankful, forgetting to worship, forgetting who I am in Christ.  It’s letting a critical spirit sour my home with ungracious words. It’s losing my sense of humour and taking it all a bit too seriously!

When we are deeply emotionally tired, we can find our confidence compromised and self-doubt on the rise.  Struggling to make decisions. Second-guessing ourselves. Ruminating over comments made to us or by us.  Less secure in who I am and whose I am. Less able to plan for the future; more anxious, more fearful, more hesitant. Less able to be proactive in solving my problems.

A drab grey can start to permeate my soul with less pleasure in my pleasures, and more burden from my burdens. I can lose perspective, seeing only fruitlessness in my ministry, mediocrity in my career, immaturity in my family and frailty in myself!  If it is allowed to accumulate, it will soon feel like hopelessness and powerlessness – two unwelcome visitors we don’t want staying!

Some strategies to keep us afloat

In my lexicon, emotional tiredness is synonymous with depression, but it is actually a more helpful, and more hopeful, way of thinking than using the D word. It has more explanatory power. This is not just something that has come over me inexplicably. No, there are reasons, good reasons, for my weariness, and if I can identify those contributory factors, I am more able to regain perspective and find some proactive ways forward.  So, this is my first strategy – write yourself a list of the accumulating emotional stressors of the pandemic for you. Homeschooling while juggling paid work? Working from home without the variety of settings, and missing interacting with colleagues? Longer shifts wearing PPE? Delayed or cancelled events? The low-level fear of catching covid or passing it on? No holidays?

By doing this, we can simply validate to ourselves the circumstances that we are in, and, very helpfully, give ourselves permission to be human! I do have a lot of “balls in the air”. It’s not that I am not coping. In fact, I am coping very well with unprecedented challenges! I think it is crucial for our mental health to develop this respectful, affirming self-evaluation.

My second strategy is spiritual. There really is only One Person who can restore our soul (Ps 23:3);  one source of Living Water (Jeremiah 2:13).  Hebrews 12:3 tells us to “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Like the Israelites of old, we are so prone to forgetting who we are and what He has done for us.  In pandemic fatigue, we easily let good habits of prayer and Bible reading fade. Whether you can give yourself a half-day of prayer, or whether you have to experiment with a new way of finding spiritual nourishment, make it your top priority. Dane Ortlund’s lovely meditation on the heart of Christ (“Gentle and Lowly”, Crossway 2020) has been a tonic for me in this way.

The Scriptures frequently ask us to keep our eyes on God, particularly when “the fig tree doesn’t bud and there are no grapes on the vine” (Habakkuk 3:17-18), choosing to rejoice in his delightful character and his extraordinary ways.

So, if you feel the need, take an emotional stock check, validate the demands that you have been under, and let Jesus refresh you for the journey ahead.

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist and cognitive behavioural therapist.

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