Stress and Fatigue as we Live Through a Time of Significant Change
Any significant change in our lives takes a certain toll on both our body and spirit, with stress and fatigue being key factors. A year ago we could never have predicted the kind of seismic change we are now living through with the global pandemic of Corona Virus. We have individually, as community and as whole nations lived through more change in the last six months than many of us would ordinarily face over a period of years. Without a doubt, the coronavirus pandemic has delivered more changes to our lives in a couple of months than most of us experience in a few years. School has changed for the children and young people, work has changed for the many of us adults. Daily routines and activities have changed for just about everybody.
Under the surface, beneath the routine and life changes most of us are also experiencing new levels of stress and fatigue. There is the general uncertainty about the trajectory of the virus ( when will it end?) Many of us worry about those close to us who are more vulnerable, with underlying conditions who might get seriously ill if they got the virus. Some of us are dealing with bereavement and the pain of loss exacerbated by not being able to accompany our loved one in their final days and not being able to mourn their loss according to our usual customs.
It should come as no surprise then that many of us are living with higher than normal levels of stress and fatigue. We are exhausted, living on a day to day basis with layered stress affecting every facet of our lives even if we ordinarily believe ourselves to be deeply resilient and to ‘never get stressed’.
Why so much stress and fatigue now?
Over these past months as we each work hard to respond and adapt to the changes required of us to cope with COVID-19 we can lose sight of the fact that any one of these changes alone would be enough to cause added stress to our lives. Stress is a good thing – we need a certain amount of stress to get us out of bed in the morning. In these days though we are not dealing with ordinary levels of stress. We know that stress, in any form, can take not only an emotional but also physical toll on our bodies. We may be used to thinking of high levels of stress and fatigue as a temporary situation but in this pandemic period many of us are now living with higher than normal levels of stress and the accompanying fatigue.
To make matters worse today’s stressers aren’t going away quickly, so the stress remains. Our body’s response to stress, that classic “fight or flight” state of mind, is sustained for a much longer period than is healthy and so we are living with not only stress but also the accompanying fatigue. Add to this some level of grieving for lost loved ones, lost work, routines, normal contact with extended family, friends and habitual rituals. The fatigue that many of my clients are now reporting is an expected effect of both this sustained stress and the sense of loss.
After half a year of dealing with the fallout from COVID-19, many of us are beginning to talk about pandemic fatigue. It’s a very real feeling of stress, fatigue and exhaustion stemming from the effects of the novel coronavirus on your life — from stay-at-home orders to the fear of getting ill to losing jobs.
We have begun to talk about being’ fed up to the back teeth’ of COVID-19. We feel we are in this never ending place where our life as we knew it is on hold, living much more quietly than we normally do, negotiating seismic shifts in how we live and work, with no idea of what the future holds. When the pandemic began we all sprang into action. We rolled with the punches and we rolled our sleeves up and did what was necessary and suggested as ways of keeping ourselves, families and communities safe. It was wonderful to see the natural urge to help and support that emerged from many quarters as we found new ways to support and care for each other.
But as the months roll on, and we are constantly asked to make more small changes with no end in sight weariness, stress and fatigue begin to set in. We are missing normal human exchanges, our routines, for some of us our livelihoods. We hardly dare to articulate it but never far from our thoughts is the question ‘when will this end? We know we should feel grateful for being safe and alive and that others have fared much worse than us. We know that the human race has faced other serious threats and dealt with them. Those of us with some familiarity with mindfulness know that nothing is forever – this too will pass. But still many of us are not feeling our best selves right now.
Where is stress and fatigue showing up for you?
Maybe your work has stopped and you are unsure of your future?
Maybe feel lonely working from home or all zoomed out and overtired at the days end?
Maybe you’re sad and lonely because you miss your family or loved ones?
Maybe you are finding yourself getting very angry with policy decisions that necessitate the cancellation of yet another significant event?
Or maybe you have a little secret cry every now and then over something seemingly small and insignificant?
Maybe you have noticed that you:
- Eat or sleep more or less than usual
- Have trouble focusing (brain fog)
- Feel edgy or nervous
- Snap at or argue with others
- Lack motivation
- Are unable to stop racing thoughts
- Are more inclined to withdraw from others.
You may at different times find yourself being angry or overwhelmed, sad or depressed We know from psychology that this is utterly normal. Our feelings right now might run the rainbow, from hopeful to hopeless. I know for me I can now become very impatient and cross very quickly. For example I am working on an old computer today as my own is in for repair. It is slow and not as responsive as I would like. I am impatient …even though I have all the time in the world to write this, and there is no rush. I have also noticed myself ( many times!) engaged in what Tara Brach calls ‘othering’. Getting myself quite worked up about what ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they ‘ should be doing. I can give quite long speeches ( to myself if I don’t have a willing listener) about how what I’m feeling is really all someone else’s fault. Thanks to Tara’s excellent teaching ( check her out on www.tarabrach.com) I can now usually recognise these behaviours before they take me over completely. I can be kind and compassionate to myself and come bac to baseline. The gift of mindfulness.
Tip One – Self Compassion to Radical Acceptance
Like most of us I also sometimes spend a lot of time focusing on an imagined ending to this strange and stressful period. I plan a holiday.When will I get to get on a plane again? I dream up all the wonderful celebrations we will soon organise to replace unmarked significant events in the lives of loved ones. I fast forward to the day when When COVID -19 is old news, no news. I sometimes catch myself seeking out the latest headlines, the latest news looking for the breakthrough, the promised end, only to be deflated by the ongoing every single day slight variation on the seemingly never ending tale of up and down. I am kind to myself when I notice this behaviour too. It is utterly normal in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. As humans it is natural for us to want to know what the plan is. Where are we going, what are the steps, how long will it take? Even if we knew COVID -19 was going to be with us for a long time – lets say three years, we would cope better if we had the end date. It is the not knowing that makes it more stressful and harder to keep going. We know that chronic stress is bad for both the mind and body. We know that our bodies are not supposed to be in fight-or-flight mode for an entire year. But what are we to do? I know the first step for me is acceptance. Saying to myself and really understanding that it is perfectly normal to feel frustrated , exhausted or burned out during this time.
What radical acceptance teaches me is that while I might not like, I might even hate the circumstances I find myself in I am no longer going to tantrum or fight what I cannot change. When I notice these resistance behaviours that are not going to serve me well in the face of circumstances I cannot change I will be kind to myself and remember the benefits of radical acceptance as best I can to my physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. As a mindfulness practicioner I strongly believe that this radical acceptance along with the practise of self compassion that will bring myself and others through the next few months of uncertainty with staying power, strength and resilience
Radical acceptance does not mean I give away all of my agency. Rather it leads me to focusing on the areas where I do have choice and responding wisely then in the face of these choices to create a new perspective on life, new habits, new rituals, and new routines, she added.
Tip Two – Radical Acceptance to Self Regulation
When life throws something unexpected our way, we know from both our human experience and the evidence base of neuroscience that the first step in managing it is this acknowledgement through radical acceptance. This is difficult until we have done it and then it makes surviving, coping and even thriving possible even while we are living with radical uncertainty. We know that this act of radical acceptance – there are many things affecting me life now that I am not in control of and that I cannot change -already reduces the experience of extreme stress, anxiety and fatigue. From this place of radical acceptance and the natural feelings of self compassion that accompany this it then becomes possible to focus on the areas where we do have some control and to begin the self regulate.
Self regulation is a term used in mindfulness – not a warm and fuzzy term but one that hints at both at the discipline of mindfulness practise and the fruit of our work when we begin to feel that this is a time when we need to be much more mindful and purposeful in our physical, mental and spiritual self care.
Tip Three – Finding our own steady heart – connecting with our human resilience
Human beings are resilient. For thousands of years we have endured and survived all sorts of threats. This pandemic too will pass. We know we are capable of adapting and remaining resilient even in the face of severe stress.
Many of us probably thought the situation would be better than it is right now, but at the same time we are not in the same place now as we were six months ago. We have come so far in that we know so much more about how to reduce the spread of the virus. We have been adapting and adjusting our behaviour in our personal, social and professional lives. We are already showing ourselves that we can get through this.”
There is a mindfulness meditation called the Mountain Meditation ( check it our on www.mindfulnessfacilitation.com/resources)
Tip Four – Take action where you can to manage stress and fatigue
You take care of your mind, body and spirit every day, Warren said. That means doing the activities that satisfy the essence of you. Reading through the list of potential actions you can take to support yourself below see what three, four or five particularly speak to you. Make a commitment to yourself and take action in these areas. It takes some discipline. It takes time to create a new habit but your health and wellbeing may require this effort from you now more than ever.
- To take care of your mind, escape in a book. Read something other than social media.
- Rest – many of us are feeling fatigued or exhausted. Listen to your body. We have been through a lot. Rest. If you have children see how you might carve out some time for yourself to take some rest.
- Establish new routines. For instance, shower and dress every morning even if you don’t plan to leave the house.
- Humans are social creatures by nature. Being alone and feeling isolated can be stressful. So it’s crucial to connect with others during the pandemic. Stay in contact with friends and loved ones. Use technology to keep in touch – even if you are a bit jaded with zoom etc they help us in these strange times to stay connected.
- Keep regular mealtimes and eat good foods. Doing these things will boost your energy, lift your mood and strengthen your immune system.
- Avoid overusing alcohol or other substances to cope. They may provide short-term relief but will also seriously undermine your efforts in managing stress and your sleep.
- Limit your connection to news coverage and social media. Choose one or two reliable sources of news and limit your time spent reading or watching.
- Manage your personal and professional expectations. Let go of the notion that you should be ‘productive’ in these strange times. If you don’t discover a new hobby, write that novel or create a new business or wow them at work with your efficiency, that’s so ok. You are managing yourself and probably supporting others through a pandemic. That is already quite an accomplishment – one you may reminisce about in years to come.
- Work on your sleep routine. Set a time for bed, and schedule time before to prepare and wind down.
- Spend some time everyday on activities that are calming for you or bring you joy to lower your stress levels. Maybe that is cooking, gardening, meditating, watching a good movie. Anything that you find offers you stress relief will help you to stay connected with your inner calm and resilience.
- Accept your feelings. Challenging situations stir up a mix of emotions. Stuffing feelings down and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Instead, acknowledge and name your feelings. Allow yourself to have them. Then refocus your mind and energy on things you can do to feel better.
- Know it is ok not to be ok. If your feelings are overwhelming or all-consuming — and getting in the way of your daily activities — reach out to a health care provider. Protecting your emotional health is just as important as caring for yourself physically.
- Create new traditions . Bring some joy into the everyday by creating new traditions. New ways to celebrate, mark the changing of the seasons, expressing your love for family and friends.. You will have something fun to look forward to and who knows you might even decide to keep it up once the pandemic has passed.
Tip Five – Go Outside, Spend time in Nature
Spend time outdoors. We know nature heals and natural daylight can help reset your body’s natural sleep patterns. We also know that moving our bodies and outdoor activities ( a little gardening perhaps) can reduce stress and fatigue and help us to regain focus for the rest of the day’s work or activities. Even being outside if you just stand under a tree or sit and admire a flower is wonderfully healing and calming. All of the wisdom traditions knew this thousands of years ago and we are just beginning to rediscover it now.
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”