Stress built up over weeks is fatiguing. Do not “push through” it.
By Dani Blum
© The New York Times Co.
Nearly two years into a drudging, dragging pandemic, each crumb of news about the Omicron variant can feel like too much to process.
Burnout, the psychological term for an all-consuming exhaustion and detachment, floated around the popular lexicon in reference to work for years, but became even more of a buzzword as it seeped into all the corners of people’s lives during the pandemic.
“When you’re dealing with long and unending uncertainty and trauma, there’s only so much you can handle,” said Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at N.Y.U. Langone Health.
In the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters, Gallagher said, acute stress often leads to exhaustion and hopelessness over time. Australia, for example, has experienced more and more climate-related natural disasters, but scientists identified a pervasive sense of “issue fatigue” about climate change in the population there from 2011 to 2016: The Australians surveyed became less likely to report that they had thought about climate change or talked about it with their friends.
That kind of all-consuming exhaustion during extreme stress is normal and expected, said Dr. Srijan Sen, director of the Frances and Kenneth Eisenberg and Family Depression Center at the University of Michigan. In the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic, he personally observed an unexpected, significant drop in depression among health care workers, which he attributed to them having a sense of community and purpose. But as the pandemic has dragged on, he said, they have become more anguished and fatigued, as they wrestle with “a level of vigilance and concern that maybe was sustainable for two weeks or two months, but not for two years,” he said.
We spoke to experts about the signals and symptoms of “worry burnout” — and ways to combat it.
What causes worry burnout?
We experience emotions for a reason, said Jeffrey Cohen, a clinical psychologist and psychiatry professor at Columbia.
Fear is an evolutionary tool to respond to threats; anxiety sends an alarm through our brains, alerting us that we need to get ourselves to safety. But at this stage of the pandemic, he said, we’ve dealt with the constant threat of COVID-19 for so long that we no longer trust our brains when they tell us we’re under attack. “It’s like, is this even a real alarm anymore?”
The physiological symptoms of stress wear on us, he added.
Our nervous system reacts to worry: Cortisol levels shoot up, heart rates rise. We end up in a heightened, chronically exhausted state. “Your body can’t sustain high levels of anxiety for long periods of time without fatiguing,” said Michelle Newman, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University who researches depression and anxiety.
That fatigue, and how it pushes us to detach from worry, might have a positive effect on people; it could signal radical acceptance of the new normal. Anxiety drives us to solve problems, Cohen said, but we cannot strategize or plan our way out of the pandemic, no matter how much mental energy we expend. “With radical acceptance, we’re just acknowledging the facts of the world are what they are,” he said, and we’re becoming more comfortable with the unending uncertainty. When does acceptance become complacency though?
And is it still a positive condition if you’re exhausted and depleted?
Refusing to worry might be a protective impulse, experts said, a coping mechanism to shield your mind from added stress. But when we’re so burned out we stop caring about measures that might beat back the virus, we put ourselves in danger.
People in a state of chronic stress become despondent and defiant, said Angela Neal-Barnett, a psychology professor at Kent State University and the author of “Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic and Fear.”
“People say, ‘It just doesn’t matter to me anymore,’ ” she said. “When you’re at that level, that suggests you’re just overwhelmed, you feel helpless, you feel hopeless. You say, ‘Do what you may, I don’t care.’ ” This apathy could affect public health at a global scale. The World Health Organization released a policy framework last year citing “pandemic fatigue” as a key obstacle to getting people to comply with Covid precautions. In January of this year, researchers found that, as the pandemic wore on, people reported less adherence to social distancing measures.
Signs of worry burnout
You avoid the news: You might feel like you can’t handle another ominous headline or hear one more update on the virus, said Gallagher. She herself felt this recently when she stumbled on a news broadcast and immediately changed the channel. “I was like, I’m going to find a ‘Seinfeld’ rerun instead,” she said.
You feel numb: Worry burnout might be associated with what psychologists call “learned helplessness,” a sense of overwhelming powerlessness after trauma, said Dr. Judson Brewer, an associate professor at Brown University and the author of “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.”
Stress might have motivated us in the early days of the pandemic to scramble for solutions to make lockdown more tolerable; now, he said, many of us have learned that we cannot control much beyond our individual behavior.
“If we spend all of our time worrying, it’s like turning our engine on, putting our car in neutral, slamming on the gas and wondering why we don’t go anywhere,” he said.
Grappling with that incessant uncertainty makes us wonder, consciously or subconsciously, what the point of caring is and why we should bother paying attention to the news at all.
This emotional numbing has also appeared in victims of natural disasters and in health care workers.
You’re tired all the time:
After an intense period of anxiety, people often feel depressed and depleted, Newman said.
Whether the source of the worry is a global disaster or the day-to-day stress over work or family, anxiety causes us to constantly scan for threats until we reach a point of exhaustion, she said.
You’re hopeless: People can feel like they’ve done “everything right” in the pandemic, Neal-Barnett said — they social distanced for months, they got vaccinated, they followed the official guidelines — and they’re still stuck in a slowmoving disaster. “You find yourself thinking more and more negatively,” she said.
You’re angrier than usual:
Anger can also crop up when we’re emotionally expended, Neal-Barnett said — we might lose our temper more quickly or find ourselves more impatient.
Putting together an action plan — to speak with a therapist, to safely socialize with friends, to take moments for mindfulness — can help us feel rested and restored.
“The days of trying to push through the tiredness are over,” Neal-Barnett said. “That’s just not in our best interests anymore.”
Experts suggested starting a meditation practice — even just a few minutes a day — to tap back into our emotions and feel present. Brewer developed a simple, on-the-go breathing exercise; the Times also has a beginner’s guide to meditation.
These techniques won’t make the pandemic go away, but they can help us back away from the edge.
If you’re suffering from worry burnout, aim for the basic building blocks of a healthy daily routine, Sen suggested — a full night’s sleep, a balanced meal plan, consistent exercise — and pay attention to the elements of your life that make you feel recharged.
Do non-virus-related conversations with friends boosts your mood, or are social interactions more draining than healing? Is immersing yourself in a book a more effective distraction than spending time on social media? Recognize when you feel like you’re expending too much of your energy following the news, Sen said, especially when you find yourself focusing on events beyond your control.
If you still gravitate back to worry, the best thing you can do is to try to cut off the cycle as soon as possible and look for activities and routines that help you relax.
“A lot of people have this myth that worrying is helpful in some way, and it’s just not,” Neal-Barnett said.