Two-plus years of a pandemic have altered our mental health. Here are the signs and what you can do to cope.
Even though we’re armed with COVID-19 vaccines and updated booster shots, the world is still largely in a different (and oft-worried) place compared with before the pandemic.
This, experts say, can lead to a feeling of malaise — or “lifestyle fatigue,” in the words of Sean Grover, a psychotherapist who writes for Psychology Today. Lifestyle fatigue can be summed up as “feeling stuck in a rut,” Grover wrote ― and who hasn’t felt at least a little stuck at some point in recent years?
“As it says in the article, lifestyle fatigue’s not any sort of clinical diagnosis,” Alayna L. Park, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, told HuffPost. “You’re not going to go to a psychologist and get a diagnosis of lifestyle fatigue.”
But she said the concept can relate to “feeling off, feeling down [or] feeling tired,” all things that fall into larger areas of mental health research.
Such feelings are normal right now, and sad days are a part of life. However, a few warning signs can indicate that you may be dealing with something bigger.
Here, experts share what lifestyle fatigue means to them and why society is experiencing it more than ever. (If you’re feeling this way, you are certainly not alone.) Plus, they offer some advice on how to feel even just a tiny bit better.
Lifestyle fatigue may be related to a symptom of depression.
The description of lifestyle fatigue resembles the clinical signs of anhedonia, or an inability to feel pleasure, Park said. And while it’s a symptom of depression, experiencing anhedonia does not automatically mean you are depressed, she stressed.
“There can be a lot of causes for anhedonia or lifestyle fatigue,” Park said. One is engaging in very few pleasurable or productive activities. This contributes to a feeling of boredom, sadness or tiredness.
“We’ve definitely had a very prolonged period of that during the COVID pandemic,” she said, adding that this is due to (very necessary!) restrictions that meant we couldn’t take part in many activities and social interactions.
“Even if we’re not outgoing extroverts, we still crave that social interaction. And that social interaction does tend to bring us a sense of pleasure,” Park said.
And even now that restrictions have lifted and people are vaccinated, we are still faced with tough decisions as we consider the risks of certain activities. Our overall life may look different, too: Our friendships are changing and maybe leaving less room for social interactions. Our workplaces are more tiring or demanding, causing many to feel less pleasure from a career. All of this can take a toll.
It could also be related to emotional exhaustion.
Society is emotionally exhausted because of what is going on in the background of our lives — that is, the pandemic on top of any other stressful life events you’re experiencing — according to Dr. Elaina DellaCava, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
When experiencing emotional exhaustion, “you’re lacking the energy to do things, lacking the motivation [and] finding that there are things that you feel you should do [but] don’t have the desire to anymore,” she said.
In other words, you’re exhausted and don’t feel like doing something that would have felt pretty normal in 2019, whether that’s a trip to the grocery store or grabbing a drink with a friend.
“Over time, what I’ve seen in my practice is that people are reporting they try to make themselves do things but just the enjoyment isn’t there in the same way it used to be,” DellaCava said.
After two-plus years of less structure than ever (like rolling out of bed and logging in to your computer) and more isolation from loved ones compared with before the pandemic, any kind of structure — such as plans, chores or an in-person meeting — can feel like an unwanted responsibility.
Your ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response has likely been activated for too long, resulting in sadness.
The pandemic has activated people’s “fight-flight-freeze” response — named for the possible reactions to a perceived threat — for the past two and a half years, according to Park.
“What our bodies naturally do when our fight-flight-freeze response [has] been activated for so long is they start to experience some depressive symptoms,” she said.
These will tire you out so you can get more sleep and heal from this stress response, Park said, adding that the symptoms are essentially telling your body: “Hey, you’ve been in this fight-flight-freeze response for two years. That’s way too long. You need to rest.”
This is your body’s way of trying to get back to its normal state, but as the pandemic continues all around us, these fight-flight-freeze responses are still reacting to that stress. So instead of going back to its typical state, your body could be experiencing depressive symptoms over and over as it pushes for rest.
Though lifestyle fatigue isn’t depression in all cases, it may be in some.
It’s normal to feel sad or off at times, Park said, but if you feel tired or down for the majority of the day on most days for at least two weeks, this may be cause for concern. At that point, you should get in touch with a doctor or therapist, she said.
DellaCava said that many people attribute these emotions to burnout — a term that is now pervasive. But feeling down for long periods of time could be a symptom of something larger than burnout, which is generally more work-related and comes from chronic stress.
It’s OK to feel this way.
After multiple new COVID-19 variants, politicized public safety protocols and a sometimes overwhelming fear of getting the virus or passing it on to a loved one, it is normal to feel different than you did before the pandemic.
“If people are feeling this way, they’re certainly not alone,” DellaCava emphasized.
Much of this exhaustion or lifestyle fatigue may be due to the feeling that the pandemic cost someone an element of their identity.
People who love to travel may not feel comfortable getting on a plane now, or if they do go on a trip, they might worry about getting sick abroad and dealing with canceled plans. Similarly, someone who once considered themselves an extrovert might struggle with small talk or meeting new people. It’s hard to be the 2019 version of yourself in the world we live in right now. And that’s exhausting.
DellaCava added that social media makes this even tougher. People are inundated with happy images that can be tough to look at when you’re having a hard day.
“They say comparison is the thief of joy, and I think there is validity in that,” DellaCava said, but remember that “you’re seeing everyone’s best day on social media.” Others aren’t posting about their bad moments or restless nights, she added.
Certain activities can help you feel better.
Adding some productive and pleasurable activities to your week can help calm feelings of lifestyle fatigue, Park said. But with many people feeling exhausted due to their work and home lives becoming intertwined, productive activities do not have to revolve around your job, she added.
“Things that can be productive are things like exercising — so, running further than you did two weeks ago — or learning a language,” Park said. Both of these can give a sense of accomplishment if you’re feeling down.
Pleasurable activities can include visiting a friend, playing an online video game with a family member or calling up a loved one.
For those feeling unmotivated or anhedonic, DellaCava suggested focusing on self-care, which can include getting a good night’s sleep or, if you’re a parent, taking time for yourself. If you’re caring for your own elderly parents, try going for a walk alone or using a meditation app. Self-care should consist of enjoyable activities that are just for you, she said.
That said, it may seem tough to go for a walk or visit a friend when you’re feeling this way. But once you’re engaged in something you enjoy, you’ll likely notice that you’re happy to actually be doing it. Plus, you should be proud of yourself for mustering up the motivation to try the activity.
But if you’re not noticing any change in mood while taking part in once-pleasurable activities, do not hesitate to reach out to a doctor or therapist, DellaCava said. There is a lot going on in the world, and it’s OK if you need someone to talk to right now or a little extra help.
Jillian Wilson – Wellness Reporter, HuffPost Sep 12, 2022