How to Deal With Pandemic Burnout

4 Mins read

If you’re feeling exhausted nowadays, you’re not alone. When stressful stimuli outpace our chances to recover, it can lead to burnout.

“During a pandemic, the threat stimuli are constant — it overwhelms the body’s convenience of recovery,” says Tonya Wilhelm, MSW, LISCW, a Minneapolis-based social worker which specializes in burnout and secondary trauma for frontline workers like healthcare providers and police officers.

“Our brains like certainty, clarity, and organization,” she says, but we're encountering “prolonged grief, multiple losses, and uncertainty.” As a result, we might feel exhausted, not able to focus or finish anything, and beset by physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches — all classic the signs of burnout.

This makes sense to Wilhelm. “If you’re feeling burned out, it’s a very rational response,” Wilhelm says. “Your body is doing what it knows how to do [with the strain response] to keep you alive. You’re just tired.”

There are lots of ways to recover your energy, whether or not the external stresses remain the same. Below is a list of options to try. Everyone will require something a little different to support their recovery, Wilhelm says, so select what feels most supportive to you right now, and know that even small interventions can go a long way toward helping to reinstate your energy.

1. Get to know yourself

None people has ever encountered a global pandemic like COVID-19 before, or negotiated indefinite stay-at-home orders, meaning we’re discovering our unique responses for this situation for the first time. Wilhelm suggests cultivating just a little self-awareness to help figure out what you need. “Sign in with yourself throughout the day,” she says. “Get to know yourself in a pandemic.” This can be as simple as pausing for 10 seconds to check in with how you feel whenever you wake up, when you’re making a meal, when you wash both hands, and so on. Pay attention to what triggers you and also where your limits are.

2. Possess some self-compassion

Being hard on yourself is its own type of stress, so try to notice where perfectionism and overachieving may be adding to your load. “How's your inner critic showing up?” Wilhelm asks. Give yourself extra grace and space for thoughts and emotions. Mistakes are inevitable at this time — let yourself learn from them instead of berating yourself. Wilhelm also suggests showing yourself kindness by planning one thing to look forward to daily, like a hot bath or a phone call with a good friend.

3. Attempt to prioritize rest and mindfulness practices

Sleep is critical to stress-recovery, and Wilhelm recommends seeking professional guidance if you’ve been can not get a good night’s sleep for longer than a week. But rest is also important, she says, and short breaks count. She suggests building in breaks regularly throughout the day to build resilience. These can be short and sweet. “Take one big, deep breath. This sends the central nervous system the message that it’s Alright to calm down.”

 4. Limit media and social media

The urge to binge on news at this time is normal, says Wilhelm. Our brains are desperate to understand what’s happening. Yet endless reading about the pandemic is like laying around the horn of the stress response, and it can compound the effects of burnout. “Our brains evolved so much more slowly than our technology — they need breaks to avoid overstimulation,” she says. Wilhelm stops checking news at 7 p.m. every single day, for example, to give herself a chance to wind down. If you want to really rejuvenate, take at least one day a week entirely away from screens.

5. Incorporate movement to your day

The fight-or-flight response can fill us using the urge to do something, just as a method to burn off energy. Try channeling this impulse into short periods of structured movement — take a walk, do some yoga, clean a drawer. You don’t have to do a full workout to get the advantages of movement. “A minute or less still lowers the stress response,” says Wilhelm.

6. Thoughtfully interact with — and disconnect from! — others

Physical distancing makes the heart grow fonder, and many of us are using every available tool, from Zoom happy hours to Houseparty chats, to stay up to date with our people. Yet we’re wired for in-person connection, says Wilhelm, and our brain’s emotional centers don’t respond as well to digital encounters as in-person ones. She suggests trying to improve the quality of our virtual encounters by connecting more thoughtfully, perhaps one on one or in smaller groups. She also recommends connecting spiritually and looking for conversations and causes of wisdom that support us in getting more connected with ourselves. Finally, for those who have loved ones who tend to drain your energy, or friends who need to process about the virus while you need to discuss anything else, give yourself permission to set boundaries and take some space. “It’s OK to protect yourself and your inner resources at this time,” Wilhelm says.

Common Signs of Burnout

Exhaustion: You feel tired on a physical, emotional, and “soul” level, says Wilhelm.

Physical symptoms: Headaches, stomachaches, back pain, rashes, and the return of old mysterious symptoms can be signs of an overwhelmed central nervous system.

Disillusionment: Cynicism and general detachment are hallmarks of burnout.

Reduced performance: You might feel a decreased motivation to get work done, have difficulty focusing, and struggle with prioritizing tasks.

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