Crisis Fatigue Got You Down? You’re Not Alone

The COVID-19 pandemic takes a physical and mental toll on many -- here are some healthy ways to cope.

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The number of consumers who say that COVID-19 has affected their mental health is rising, and symptoms of anxiety and depression aren’t the only signs. For many, “crisis fatigue” is beginning to set in, if it didn’t already take residence months ago—and chances are, it will only get worse.

Early during the pandemic, one-third of consumers reported experiencing high levels of psychological distress during the pandemic. Levels of distress were much higher among individuals facing financial pressures or who were concerned about their health risks. Also at risk: young adults, low-income adults, Hispanic adults and those who are most physically vulnerable to COVID-19.

Now, as we come off the heels of a back-to-school season filled with tough decisions (In-person or e-learning?) and enter into the holiday season, when COVID-19 and the flu threaten to derail traditional family celebrations, consumers are weary of the pandemic—and it’s taking a physical toll.

Why Constant Crisis Wipes People Out

Even before COVID-19, chronic stress left some individuals emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted. Rates of burnout were widespread, with a range of factors that left people at risk, from the stress of caring for children or older parents to the demands of juggling high-pressure jobs to the challenges of navigating work and home.

Now, with the pressures of a pandemic thrown into the mix, some individuals find they have lost their ability to cope with the prolonged feelings of crisis that COVID-19 presents. With so many news alerts regarding the risks we face—and an onslaught of conflicting messages, opinions and emotions coming at us from a variety of channels—some individuals are left feeling numb and physically exhausted. One common expression: “I’m so over it.”

Historically, we’ve seen instances of a similar condition, “compassion fatigue,” among healthcare workers, especially among those responding to intense and prolonged disasters. With so much depending on medical professionals—and so many scenarios where patients have experienced extreme trauma—some professionals find themselves emotionally drained. They lose the ability to respond with compassion to others’ needs, and not just while they are on the job. It’s a condition that affects their professional and personal life.  

Now, we’re seeing similar manifestations of prolonged stress in consumers. Not only do these individuals find themselves emotionally withdrawn, but they also may experience physical symptoms, such as a feeling of constant tension in their neck and back, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite and an overwhelming sense of physical exhaustion. Some people become pessimistic. Others find that the smallest of difficulties triggers a highly emotional response.

When Crisis Fatigue Affects Judgment

The dangers of crisis fatigue go beyond the emotional and physical effects of this condition. Crisis fatigue can also impact the ability to make good decisions. This can lead individuals to take unhealthy risks.

We saw this occur this past May, a couple of months after the coronavirus was detected in the United States. When the rate of COVID-19 infections began to drop and public places such as parks and restaurants began to reopen, some people began to reconvene in large groups, especially as the weather became warmer. They went out to eat again, spent time at the beach, attended barbecues and hosted graduation parties, even as ceremonies went virtual. It wasn’t that the threat of COVID-19 had passed. Rather, crisis fatigue had set in, and they could no longer mentally sustain a take-all-precautions-necessary response.

The impact: “super-spreader” events, where large groups become infected with the virus after spending time together at a single event. One wedding in Maine was linked to 170 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths. A birthday party in Texas left 18 people with the coronavirus.

Finding Healthy Ways to Cope

When crisis fatigue lasts for extended periods, it can lead to longer-term psychiatric issues. That’s one reason why it’s so important to find healthy ways to cope with the ever-present stress of COVID-19, especially as tensions ramp up due to the political climate, economic conditions, the impact of the pandemic on holiday planning and more.

Here are four approaches to consider.

Practice self-care—and self-compassion. Take time out for exercise, such as a 20-minute morning walk before the rest of the house wakes up or a short bicycle ride during a mid-day break. Think about the types of things that bring you joy, and resolve to dedicate half an hour a day to that activity or indulgence. Missing the time spent at a coffee shop? Maybe now is the time to order coffee beans from your local independent shop for a taste of something new. In a cooking rut, but wish that you weren’t? Consider a subscription to a recipe service, like this one. The idea is to promote joy. It might require looking outside the box for ideas that are both fun and safe, but the quest could stimulate your senses and leave you feeling more invigorated.

Talk about it with a loved one or a colleague. This is especially true if the type of work you do has a high-stress human element or if your industry is experiencing economic hardship, as so many are these days. Find someone safe to vent to, whether it’s a family member, a close friend or someone in your industry. Look for opportunities for live discussion, whether by phone or in a socially distanced way, rather than relying on messages sent via a device. These real-time interactions could prompt you to think about an issue in new ways.

Get off Facebook. Especially during the election season, when COVID-19 itself seems more political than ever, consider a 30-day break from the memes and the rush-to-judgment posts that are becoming increasingly prevalent. Afraid you’ll miss something, such as news from a family member or photos from those you love? Consider having a close family member share those posts with you offline. The mental break you gain from social media “quiet time” typically will become evident within a week.

Know when to seek professional help. These days, care is just a phone call or health app away. If you’re feeling exhausted from the weight of COVID-19 or experiencing physical or emotional symptoms related to the stress of the pandemic, you can reach out to a counselor privately from the comfort of home—or even from your car, if there isn’t a private space at home. Visits can take place via an audio-only connection or a connection with a video component. With more consumers experiencing mental distress during the pandemic, availability of behavioral health professionals via telehealth has increased, presenting more options for assistance that are convenient and easily accessible.

You’re Not Alone

There’s a lyric from a TikTok song that encapsulates the sense of crisis fatigue so many are feeling: “The pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it …” It’s not clear yet when the pandemic might end. That’s why it’s so important to find healthy ways to cope. Taking care of yourself, limiting your exposure to news stories and alerts, and knowing when to seek professional help are critical to sustaining or restoring resilience.

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