Remember those brief, blissful weeks at the beginning of the summer? Vaccination rates were rising, COVID-19 infections were dropping and mask mandates were lifting. Lots of us started to cautiously hug our friends, eat in restaurants and plan vacations again. We thought we were seeing the end of the pandemic.
As it turns out, we were wrong. The Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy have combined to launch another surge in COVID-19 infections. And along with that comes another surge in mental health challenges related to the pandemic.
Navaid Khan, MD, a Banner Health psychiatrist, explained what’s different about this latest surge and how we can care for our mental health as this pandemic continues unabated.
Make plans to help ease your uncertainty
“The biggest frustration people are facing now is a lack of knowledge,” Dr. Khan said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.” We don’t know when the pandemic will end. We don’t know if new variants will pose a threat. We don’t know if the people around us are vaccinated. We don’t know whether our kids will stay in the classroom or switch to remote learning. We don’t know when or if we’ll have to return to working in offices.
Persistent uncertainty can make you not want to plan, since you’re not sure you’ll be able to carry out those plans. But this lack of planning adds to your stress levels. “We need to accept that our new normal may be living in a pandemic,” Dr. Khan said.
He said making plans, with the appropriate safeguards, can help reduce your stress. “Do not postpone things in your life thinking once the pandemic is over, you’ll do them,” he said. “You need to live your life the way it is now and plan things with the proper precautions.”
Having something to look forward to can help alleviate stress and break the monotony of living through the pandemic. He recommends planning travel and vacations as long as you’re vaccinated, while avoiding crowded indoor activities.
Recognize that you might develop compassion fatigue
Frontline workers are prone to compassion fatigue, and these days we’re all at risk for its burnout, detachment and low productivity. That’s because we’re dealing with the never-ending stress of the pandemic. Vaccinated people may find themselves frustrated with unvaccinated people and no longer able to sympathize with people who are sick or even dying.
Talking about your feelings can help you cope with compassion fatigue and regain your sense of empathy. “A lot of people thought that by not discussing it, they would forget it or it would go away,” Dr. Khan said. “That’s not true. The answer is to turn to the people around you. The way to deal with trauma is to talk about it. Emotional fatigue can only go away when you process it.”
Break away from the news and social media
To feed our desire for knowledge, we turn to the news or social media with a type of compulsion. “We want to stay away, but we can’t, and it feeds our anxiety,” Dr. Khan said.
Try setting a time for news and social media and then stepping away. A quick daily check of the headlines or a few minutes of TV news can catch you up on anything important.
If you compulsively check social media, try limiting yourself to just one platform instead of looking at four or five different apps. And restrict the time you use social media. “Don’t check it at work. It’s not meant for work,” Dr. Khan said.
Turn to the tried-and-true stressbusters
You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating. Certain actions are practically guaranteed to reduce your stress as long as you make time for them. “It’s about finding a ritual that’s meaningful to you,” Dr. Khan said. Try:
- “Low-grade” exercise. Dr. Khan recommends moving your body with activities like yoga, stretching, swimming or walking outdoors. You don’t have to join a full-court basketball game or complete a triathlon to get the stress-reducing benefits of exercise.
- Breathing. When you’re stressed, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Taking a few slow, deep breaths can signal to your body that you’re okay and help you calm down.
- Meditation. Meditation is another proven stress reliever. Sit in a quiet room, close your eyes and focus on your breathing for three minutes to start. If sitting still isn’t working for you, try taking a short, slow walk where you focus on your footsteps, the sensations in your body or the sounds around you.
- Sleep. Getting enough sleep and following some simple sleep hygiene rules goes a long way toward reducing anxiety and improving motivation.
And be sure to avoid excessive use of alcohol, nicotine or cannabis. They can worsen anxiety and depression and increase your heart rate and restlessness.
Seek professional help if you need it
These strategies might help you get your pandemic fatigue under control. But they might not be enough. If you’re not able to process your feelings, struggle to sleep at night, feel a sense of impending doom, or feel sad every day, it’s time to see a mental health professional. “When it’s beyond you and you’re not dealing with it well, it’s time to see a counselor,” Dr. Khan said. He points out that counseling alone, without medication, can usually help with mild to moderate symptoms.
The bottom line
The stress and uncertainty of the pandemic can wear you down and tax your mental health. When you feel overwhelmed, using techniques to manage your stress levels can help you feel better. If you would like to talk to a mental health professional to help with your pandemic fatigue, reach out to Banner Health.