If you feel like you’re in a constant state of lockdown fatigue—bogged down by the news cycle, uncertainty around the pandemic, and staying at home—you are far from alone. “Feeling apprehensive/hopeful/exhausted/hitting that pandemic wall. You?” wrote Padma Lakshmi on a recent Instagram post, summing up our collective mood these days. As we near month ten of social distancing in the throes of winter, the burnout is all too real. While nothing changes the current realities of the pandemic, gaining a deeper understanding of what’s at play with this gradual, paralyzing feeling of lethargy—and how best to cope with it—can be helpful in powering through. Here, environmental psychologist Lee Chambers, whose practice focuses on wellbeing at work, breaks down what lockdown fatigue is, what the symptoms are, and how best to treat it.
What is lockdown fatigue?
“While it manifests itself in various ways, lockdown fatigue is the impact of experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings, combined with underlying anxiety, future uncertainty and a lack of control over part of our lives,” explains Chambers. The main reason it’s become so prevalent is because the pandemic has impacted our wellbeing in a multitude of ways and we’ve have no choice but to adjust at a dizzying pace. “We’ve had to adapt and acclimatize to an evolving situation with speed while there’s an infectious disease out there that has the potential to end our lives,” explains Chambers. “Routines have been interrupted, schedules have been changed, and many individuals are working from home, working on the front lines, and educating differently.” Moreover, wellbeing is also heavily affected by difficulties such as financial struggles, which requires having to learn to change and do things differently. “It takes cognitive flexibility and emotional balance, of which are in short supply,” says Chambers. Add to this anxiety, which disrupts our sleep quality and quantity, he says, and a feeling of constant fatigue is increasingly common.
What are the symptoms of lockdown fatigue?
The impact of lockdown fatigue on our mental and physical wellbeing presents differently in different people, but the overarching feeling is one of “exhaustion, lack of focus, and lower motivation,” says Chambers. Some describe these symptoms as “brain fog,” and others have noted that their short term memory has decreased. These things are only heightened by anxiety, which was already on the rise pre-pandemic. “Anxiety is [even more] prevalent as worries over our health and others’ health, finances, and future security are amplified,” explains Chambers. “Stress and cortisol levels are increased as many of us juggle responsibilities, struggle to sleep or feel isolated and lonely.”
With the increase in psychological stressors comes an increase in physiological response. With all that we’ve experienced during the lockdown and pandemic, many of use are in what Chamber calls a “higher arousal state” for longer, which is having a negative impact on our energy levels. “This can cause physical tiredness, muscle tension and headaches, leaving us feeling agitated and irritable,” he says. Then, mentally, there’s the inherent sadness of missing physical interaction, the anger at a lack of control of the situation, and the frustration of a lack of clarity on what freedoms we do have. “With many people’s sleep disrupted, our emotional regulation is even harder to keep in harmony,” he adds.
How are recent COVID-19 spikes and political upheaval impacting those experiencing lockdown fatigue?
“Stress is a critical part of the human experience, allowing us to channel a physiological response to respond to threats effectively, but this continual triggering amplifies lockdown fatigue due to continued activation of our sympathetic nervous system,” explains Chambers. “Because health and political stability are two of the significant pillars that human beings value and that are constantly reported on, we are constantly stimulated and anxious about what the future may hold.” What’s more, says Chambers, is that this uncertainty reduces our resilience towards future stressors, leaving us struggling to activate our parasympathetic nervous system.
What are the best ways to treat lockdown fatigue?
Start With Sleep
When it comes to combatting lockdown fatigue, starting with sleep is often beneficial. “Improving our sleep-wake cycle by aiming for a consistent sleep routine is a great start,” explains Chambers. “It provides an anchor in our day and allows us to honor our circadian rhythmicity, positively impacting our energy, emotional balance and hormonal regulation.” Before bed, he recommends setting a curfew on things that affect sleep quality, such as alcohol, caffeine and big meals, to increase the regenerative aspect of sleep. Additionally, because stress and anxiety can cause sleeping problems, it’s also important to cultivate an evening routine that allows you to disconnect from technology, media, and high-intensity activities, and embrace more mindful activities that help you destimulate and relax.
Follow a Schedule
When fighting fatigue, don’t underestimate the value of creating a routine. “We all know the feeling of aimlessness when we have a day with no structure,” explains Chambers. “By creating a schedule for our sleep, eating, work and relaxation, we have a structure to operate in and a level of certainty and control that helps us to feel less anxious and more stable. And while a little bit of flexibility goes a long way, we need a routine when in lockdown as it gives us some psychological separation between parts of our day, which is essential when we are staying in our domestic environments.” When plotting out your day, he encourages scheduling time outdoors, which has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and improve sleep. Another helpful tip for bookending your day is to set a firm stopping time. “It’s very easy to fall into living at work, rather than working from home without a scheduled endpoint,” says Chambers, who also believes in creating a “digital sunset” by shutting down devices and putting them away at the end of the workday.
Stay Active and Eat Mindfully
From tech neck to increased muscle tension, staying put during lockdown has put our bodies to the test. This is why the benefits of dedicated exercise, which reduces body’s stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins (aka the body’s natural painkillers), can’t be underestimated. “While exercise may tire you out in the short term, it is both mood-boosting and boosts our resistance to stressors, both valuable tools in combatting fatigue,” says Chambers. To further tap into exercise’s stress-melting benefits, add in some uplifting music, which can act as a tool of emotional contagion, he says. Needless to say, working out goes hand in hand with a healthy, nutrition-packed diet. “Ensuring you eat nutritious meals will give you the energy you need and you will feel better equipped to navigate your emotions,” he says. Better yet, cooking for yourself can serve as a robust creative outlet. And just as important as eating mindfully is staying hydrated, which is essential to health and bodily well-being.
While there’s no question that technology is a double-edged sword, the ways in which it can help us stay connected to each other, from Zoom to virtual support groups, makes it a helpful tool—especially now. “Lockdown is a shared human experience we are going through together, and it’s crucial that we don’t feel like it is just us who are fatigued,” explains Chambers. To combat loneliness, he advises his patients to find intentional ways to interact with others and invest in some self-care that’s meaningful to them, while also finding ways to be kind and helpful to others. After all, doing nice things for others has been found to boost serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter that gives us the feeling of satisfaction and well-being.
Create a Work From Home Space
Simply put: Staying motivated and productive while working from home is a challenge. Firstly, Chambers suggests implementing anchors of a typical workday such as getting dressed for work (taking advantage of the enclothed cognition), and simulating a commute by taking a walk and returning to your home as if you’re entering work. These things will help you build a framework that bakes in recovery time and honors circadian rhythms. In addition to instructing his patients to focus on creating psychological separation and boundaries through a healthy working schedule with regular short breaks, Chambers encourages optimizing a dedicated workspace. “We all have different challenges, but try and find a place that isn’t high traffic, gets plenty of natural light, and has as much partition from your domestic life as possible to minimize distraction,” says Chambers. The fact is, prioritizing work-life balance has never more important.
From VOGUE US