In the beginning of the pandemic we rallied, sending loved ones rolls of toilet paper and handing out fruit to delivery drivers. Now, living under a blanket of restrictions has become a way of life, a daily routine of risk calculation and caution. But cases are once again spiking around the world and many people have what some call “pandemic fatigue.” As my colleagues wrote, “The rituals of hope and unity that helped people endure the first surge of the virus have given way to exhaustion and frustration.” Everywhere you turn there’s a feeling of burnout, which is even more pronounced for essential and frontline workers.
The stakes are high, especially with the holiday season approaching. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently laid out a new set of guidelines around mass gatherings, limiting them to no more than three households at a time.
I spoke to Elissa Epel, professor at the University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, about how to prevent pandemic fatigue from slipping into unsafe behavior. Dr. Epel also curates a website on coping resources during the pandemic.
Here are some of the main points from our conversation.
Stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression are on the rise.
A recent study showed that depression rates spiked three times higher during the pandemic, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of American adults reported problems with anxiety, depression or substance abuse in late June.
However, Dr. Epel said that psychological distress conditions that look like depression and anxiety are not necessarily psychiatric disorders in the classic sense.
“It’s a normal response to what’s happening,” she said.
Adverse mental health effects are linked to being in a chronically stressful situation, especially for people whose lives have been severely disrupted by illness, financial stress or essential work.
Pandemic burnout, in which essential and service workers are stressed to the point that they can no longer do their jobs, can also happen as a result of caring for others. Dr. Epel said that for these individuals, they cannot continue to work in a system that creates burnout and cure themselves at the same time.
“The system has to find ways to really help people restore and have more time for self care,” she said.
The kind of fatigue that the general population has experienced can be linked to physical health conditions or it can be related to shared psychological stressors. Dr. Epel suggests limiting exposure to upsetting news and being kind to yourself and others who are experiencing emotional distress.
There are things you can do to cope.
Everyone should think about what personal care means for themselves, Dr. Epel said. She said this definition was different for everyone. For some, it may mean getting lots of good quality sleep. For others, personal care means long walks in nature or exercise.
Preventing long periods of sedentary behavior can also help most people.
“Creating body stress that we then recover from actually in the