The last four months have brought more uncertainty into the lives of Americans than many have seen in their lifetimes.
For some, it's the stress of the unknown that can be most exhausting. The major details of day-to-day life are upside down, from jobs to home life, to home-schooling, concern for older parents, claustrophobic arguments with loved ones and the basic needs questions of paying the rent. For many, it all results in a Groundhog Day effect, in which every day feels long, monotonous, and joyless.
- The pandemic has caused extreme burnout for many Americans: the anxiety of the virus, the moral dilemma of everyday decisions, kids at home, greater demands at work, financial stressors and the feeling that there's no end in sight are starting to wear on people across the economic spectrum.
"I'm seeing a lot of hope burnout," said Dr. Sabrina Hadeed-Duea, who runs a private counseling practice in Bend as well as teaching courses for the OSU-Cascades' Master of Counseling program. "Where is the light? When are we going to be done? Human beings—universally and across cultures—thrive with predictability, structure and routine. All of these are in question when you're trying to home-school and work from home, while struggling with relationships and finances."
Decision fatigue that comes from things like trying to plan out every detail of that trip to the grocery store can also lead to burnout. Huge ethical and existential questions go into decisions that were simple before: Should you help your neighbor and risk exposing them? Should you go to the grocery store and risk spreading the illness to others or catching it and bringing it home to your parents? Should you order on Amazon, or is that taking advantage of essential workers?
"There's a growing phenomenon of judgementalism," Hadeed-Duea said. "People feeling judged or judging others. They're conflicted with managing the risks of COVID, their financial needs and their child care needs and then having their actions judged by their friends or in-laws. Posting about a socially distanced barbecue they attended and then having other friends disapprove."
Political and economic dynamics
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated a range of social, racial and economic inequities in the U.S., increasing the stress of people disenfranchised by poverty, racism and homelessness. At the beginning of the pandemic, working-class people were suddenly lauded as "essential workers," yet sometimes forced to labor in unsafe conditions for low wages. Both Black and Native American people have been hospitalized from COVID-19 at five times the rate of whites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On top of this, the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis exposed abuse of power and racial injustice that inspired a worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. It's all had a destabilizing effect on society, requiring self-examination on personal and political levels.
Even for those who had comfortable white-collar jobs before the pandemic, millions are now laid off and without health insurance. For the employed, layoffs of fellow employees may mean carrying twice the work load or the fear that one's job may also be cut in the future. As debates about cancel culture, covert racism and free speech rage through social media, the fear of getting attacked or even fired for saying the wrong thing also adds to the overwhelm.
- As people juggle home-schooling, working from home, fears of the virus, and the complications of everyday life, burnout is a normal part of the pandemic lifestyle.
Identity in question
Months of isolation has also caused stress for many people stuck home alone or with a house full of children.
"Our worlds have become so small. We're not getting our relational needs met the way we used to," Hadeed-Duea said. "The chats at the coffee shop, going to a favorite restaurant, a yoga class or group fitness... all of this stuff we took for granted."
As humans, much of our sense of identity is formed by how it is reflected back to us, psychologists say. This concept of the "looking-glass self," codified by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902, states that part of how people see themselves comes from a perception of how others see them. People may think they are hilarious if other people laugh at their jokes or that they are very interesting if people listen intently to whatever they have to say. During the pandemic, as video meetings become a way of life, the digital interface strips out much of the non-verbal and extra-sensory aspects of human interaction, leaving people without the endorphin-producing process of engaging with other people through both work and play.
Self care, not new hobbies
So what's the solution for all the stress and burnout?
At the beginning of the pandemic, thought leaders flooded social media with advice not to let the downtime of quarantine go to waste. William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while isolated to avoid the plague, they pointed out. Around the same time, Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity in his parent's country house, miles from disease-ridden London. But the pressure to use the pandemic wisely and productively may be further adding to stress and burnout.
Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a California sleep doctor, told Psychology Today that avoiding burnout may be better accomplished by simply paying attention to basic biological needs instead of writing the next American novel.
Sleep at least seven hours and aim for eight or nine, Dimitriu said, and eat healthy—even when comfort food seems like the right solution to pandemic stress. Exercise vigorously for 30 to 40 minutes three to four times a week, call friends and loved ones and finally get outside and play instead of opting for the couch, he said.