How to Deal With Pandemic Burnout

A therapist who specializes in burnout offers tips for self-care during a crisis.  

An exhausted woman is collapsed on a sofa.

If you’re feeling exhausted these days, you’re not alone. When stressful stimuli outpace our chances to recover, it can lead to burnout.

“During a pandemic, the threat stimuli are constant — it overwhelms the body’s capacity for recovery,” says Tonya Wilhelm, MSW, LISCW, a Minneapolis-based social worker who specializes in burnout and secondary trauma for frontline workers like healthcare providers and police officers.

“Our brains like certainty, clarity, and organization,” she says, but we are encountering “prolonged grief, multiple losses, and uncertainty.” As a result, we might feel exhausted, unable to focus or finish anything, and beset by physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches — all classic symptoms of burnout.

This makes sense to Wilhelm. “If you’re feeling burned out, it’s a really rational response,” Wilhelm says. “Your body is doing what it knows how to do [with the stress response] to keep you alive. You’re just tired.”

There are many ways to recover your energy, even if the external stresses remain the same. Below is a list of options to try. Everyone will need something a little different to support their recovery, Wilhelm says, so select what feels most supportive to you right now, and know that even small interventions can go a long way toward helping to restore your energy.

1. Get to know yourself

None of us has ever encountered a global pandemic like COVID-19 before, or negotiated indefinite stay-at-home orders, which means we’re discovering our unique responses to this situation for the first time. Wilhelm suggests cultivating a little self-awareness to help figure out what you need. “Check in with yourself throughout the day,” she says. “Get to know yourself in a pandemic.” This can be as simple as pausing for 10 seconds to check in with how you feel when you wake up, when you’re making a meal, when you wash your hands, and so on. Pay attention to what triggers you and where your limits are.

2. Have some self-compassion

Being hard on yourself is its own form of stress, so try to notice where perfectionism and overachieving may be adding to your load. “How is your inner critic showing up?” Wilhelm asks. Give yourself extra grace and space for thoughts and emotions. Mistakes are inevitable right now — let yourself learn from them instead of berating yourself. Wilhelm also suggests showing yourself kindness by planning one thing to look forward to daily, like a hot bath or a phone call with a good friend.

3. Try to prioritize rest and mindfulness practices

Sleep is critical to stress-recovery, and Wilhelm recommends seeking professional guidance if you’ve been struggling to get a good night’s sleep for longer than a week. But rest is also important, she says, and short breaks count. She suggests building in breaks regularly throughout the day to build resilience. These can be short and sweet. “Take one big, deep breath. This sends the nervous system the message that it’s OK to calm down.”

 4. Limit media and social media

The urge to binge on news right now is normal, says Wilhelm. Our brains are desperate to understand what’s happening. Yet endless reading about the pandemic is like laying on the horn of the stress response, and it can compound the effects of burnout. “Our brains evolved so much more slowly than our technology — they need breaks to avoid overstimulation,” she says. Wilhelm stops checking news at 7 p.m. every day, for example, to give herself a chance to wind down. If you want to really rejuvenate, take at least one day a week entirely away from screens.

5. Incorporate movement into your day

The fight-or-flight response can fill us with the urge to do something, just as a way to burn off energy. Try channeling this impulse into short periods of structured movement — take a walk, do some yoga, clean a drawer. You don’t have to do a full workout to get the benefits of movement. “A minute or less still brings down the stress response,” says Wilhelm.

6. Thoughtfully connect with — and disconnect from! — others

Physical distancing makes the heart grow fonder, and many of us are using every available tool, from Zoom happy hours to Houseparty chats, to stay up to date with our people. Yet we’re wired for in-person connection, says Wilhelm, and our brain’s emotional centers don’t respond as well to digital encounters as in-person ones. She suggests trying to improve the quality of our virtual encounters by connecting more thoughtfully, perhaps one on one or in smaller groups. She also recommends connecting spiritually and looking for conversations and sources of wisdom that support us in getting more connected with ourselves. Finally, if you have loved ones who tend to drain your energy, or friends who need to process about the virus while you need to talk about anything else, give yourself permission to set boundaries and take some space. “It’s OK to protect yourself and your inner resources right now,” Wilhelm says.

is features editor of Experience Life magazine.

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