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Coping with pandemic fatigue

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In October 2020, just before the second lockdown in the Toronto and Peel regions, Carly Chalmers made a COVID-19 bingo card. 

Chalmers, a 32-year-old Toronto resident, brainstormed activities for her and her husband to do in another lockdown. These included baking, home renovation, trying a new restaurant and hosting a digital trivia night. 

They haven’t finished the bingo card as of June 2021.

“It was difficult to find the motivation to do stuff,” said Chalmers. “I definitely felt extremely lethargic, and it felt difficult even trying to do really simple things.” 

“I definitely reached a point…where you feel like your life is not moving forward in any way and there’s no indication of when things could move forward,” she added. 

Chalmers is not alone in these melancholy feelings.

What is pandemic fatigue? 

According to Public Health Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph (WDG), this is called pandemic fatigue. 

Lindsay Cline, a health promotion specialist, defined it as a “natural sense of burnout [that] can happen since we’ve had to stick to these public health measures for such a prolonged period of time.” 

She wrote pandemic fatigue often presents itself as feelings of restlessness, irritability, lack of motivation and difficulty concentrating on tasks.

“You may even notice yourself withdrawing from socializing with others or physical symptoms such as changes in eating and sleep habits,” she added.

Photo by Anna Shvets

Like many, the concept of pandemic fatigue resonated with Chalmers. 

At the start of the pandemic, Chalmers joined several Zoom hangouts and group chats with friends. Now she said social interactions leave her feeling withdrawn.

Chalmers said the last wave of the pandemic was the worst yet. 

“I think that a lot of people were just in fight or flight mode,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to think about maintaining your friendships when you’re just so focused on surviving.”

Cheryl Forchuk, a registered nurse and researcher at Parkwood Institute in London, Ont., said the novelty of digital communication has worn off. 

“When you have a full day of technology, then you’re less likely to reach out to friends after that,” she said.

Since many people use social interaction as a coping strategy, Forchuk said their mental health may be affected. 

“People had a mindset that it was going to be a short period of time — like, say, flu season — and didn’t appreciate that pandemics definitely do take years,” said Forchuk. 

Because of this, Forchuk said some may be experiencing symptoms of mental illness for the first time. 

For now, Forchuk said it is vital to find alternative means for usual coping strategies, whether that’s maintaining a social circle, staying in contact with a spiritual or religious community, or exercise. 

Pandemic fatigue and new beginnings 

Others, like Rose D’souza, a 34-year old Toronto resident, have experienced pandemic fatigue in different ways. 

As a BIPOC person, she said there is an added level of stress with pandemic fatigue, both in the workplace and one’s personal life. 

D’souza was working 13 to 16-hour work days at what she called a “dream job” in public policy and health policy. 

She eventually became incredibly overwhelmed with her work-life balance and what she said were faux notions of workplace diversity and inclusion. 

“I’m having a lot of conversations with other racialized women who are starting to realize that  they need to refocus their role or what their expectations are in the workforce because these promotions — this notion of diversity — isn’t actually what they’re experiencing,” she said. 

D’souza said she realized her life needed a “reset.” 

“I had really exhausting days, and I had to take a step back near the end of the year,” she said.

“I realized that I actually didn’t remember what I did between May to August.”

She added, “I don’t have pictures from those days. I don’t remember anything. I’m not even sure I left the apartment on some of those days, even though it was during summer.”

So D’souza quit her job. 

Now she is working part-time and looking to be her own boss while acting as an external consultant for prospective clients. 

The end of the hustle 

D’souza said she would not have had this life reset without the pandemic. 

“I think a lot of millennials are looking for that personal and professional balance. A lot of people my age really bought into the hustle culture,” said D’souza. 

“That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my pandemic fatigue: I need to redefine the workplace for me.”

Chalmers also spoke about hustle culture playing a role in her pandemic fatigue.

Hustle culture, also known as “rise and grind” culture, is the glorification of working overly long hours even when it’s at the cost of mental and physical health.

“It feels like there’s all this pressure to learn a new skill, or redecorate your home or whatever,” she said. “I think it’s okay to not do those things. You’re living through a goddamn pandemic. All you have to do is survive.”

She added, “If you have people in your life that are thriving right now, good for them. Just mute them on social media.”

Moving forward

Forchuk said acknowledging one’s feelings is key to eliminating pandemic fatigue. 

Realizing the ways in which specific individuals, such as women or BIPOC people, are specifically affected by COVID-19 is vital to maintaining mental health, she said. 

“Certainly there are gender-related issues, particularly for women with children — especially with the whole back and forth with school — that create a lot of stress,” Forchuk said. 

“Although it’s not to say it’s only women that pick up the slack, but we know predominantly  that’s where that is going to fall.”

She added that extended family and networking are more important in some cultures than others. This may also factor into pandemic fatigue. 

There needs to be alternatives available to pre-existing coping mechanisms, she said. 

“We’ve all developed these coping strategies. So just think through how you can use similar things to what you’ve used in the past to deal with this abnormal situation.” 

As a final tip for those experiencing pandemic fatigue, Forchuk said, “It’s normal to have an abnormal reaction in an abnormal situation.”

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