20200909-FEA-pandemic fatigue

Pandemic fatigue has set in.

This story doesn’t need an anecdotal lead because each of us has a story of our own.

And most of those stories involve being tired. We’re tired of people telling us to wear masks or not to wear masks but arguing either way. We’re tired of having the kids home, and we’re tired of being afraid because they’re going to school. We’re tired of counting cases, measuring six feet with invisible rulers inside our heads and seeing images of a spiky soccer ball of a microbe.

Six months into our so-called new normal, pandemic fatigue has set in — and how. Our anxiety has increased, many of us are depressed, and some of us have put on the “pandemic 15.” Experts say that there are steps we can take to help wake up our spirits.

But trying to shake the ennui may not be simple.

“Everything is so extra right now, and it’s exhausting,” tweeted Jen Walker, who works (now from home) in social media for the Regenstrief Institute, an Indianapolis research organization that has been gauging the pandemic. “If you’re feeling it, you’re not alone.”

Decisions that used to be simple are now fraught, Walker said.

In the B.C. times (before coronavirus), Walker and her husband, Brian, could decide on a whim to go out to eat with their toddler and head to any restaurant. They could eat inside if the evening was hot. Now, they will eat outside only, and there are only a few places they feel comfortable going.

Since the pandemic started, Walker has seen only a handful of friends, all of whom are as cautious as she is about what they will do.

“Every time you have to think about, is it really worth the risk?” she said. “I have seen so much scary stuff about it (COVID). … How is going out to eat really worth the risk of having lung damage the rest of my life?”

The calculus for Autumn Overbay is a very different one. When the pandemic started, she worried about what would happen if a high-risk close family member got it.

Then that person and everyone else in Overbay’s immediate family was infected. Although Overbay’s symptoms were mild enough that she never got tested, some of the others tested positive, leading her to conclude they all had the coronavirus.

Having been through the illness, Overbay does not appreciate being treated the same way as those who have been not infected. Recently the Frankfort, Ind. social worker and seven family members — all of whom had been sick — tried to eat out all together at a restaurant. The wait staff refused to seat a party of greater than six at the same table.

Masks present another dilemma for Overbay. She does wear one around other people, even though she thinks there’s little chance she could spread or contract the virus again. (Scientists at this point do not know whether people once infected develop immunity and, if so, how long it lasts.) Were she to leave her face bare, though, strangers might jump to conclusions.

All these assumptions and experiences leave her frustrated.

“We don’t know other people’s circumstances,” she said. “People are stuck in their view without having empathy or sympathy with what’s going on.”

No playbook for now

Health experts worry that pandemic fatigue will have led too many people this Labor Day weekend to let down their guard and make decisions that could lead in two weeks to another surge of cases. Florida and Texas saw this happen in the wake of Memorial Day, and Indiana experienced this after the July Fourth weekend.

Whether or not that happens — and hopefully it does not — not much is likely to change. In general people are reporting unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. Many feel overwhelmed, trying to navigate as best they can day by day.

But no one knows exactly how. Nor do they do know what the next day or week will or won’t bring, an uncertainty that further fuels distress, experts say.

“There is no playbook or no right answer for what to do in this situation because I don’t think we have faced it collectively ever,” said Dr. Mitesh Patel, a psychiatrist with Ascension St. Vincent Health. “I think we just have to get used to the idea that this is going to be our new normal for the foreseeable future.”

In many cases we know what we should be doing: wearing our masks, social distancing, washing our hands, etc. But when we see other people doing things differently on social media, we may feel tempted to follow suit, said Jennifer Pferrer, executive director of the Wellness Council of Indiana.

Despite being reminded often that we’re now operating in a new normal, we may see pictures of others enjoying large gatherings on social media and think that’s safe after all. It’s not that we are throwing caution to the wind. It’s just that COVID-19 has become the background soundtrack for so long, we cease to hear it.

“We as humans, when we’re in this state of prolonged stress, our body takes longer to get us back into that understanding,” Pferrer said. “In reality we’re all trying to gravitate back to how things used to be, so we’re desensitized to this threat that COVID is still out there. We’re desensitized to the threat it could be.”

A vaccine, should one arise, is not likely to be a magic bullet for society, experts say. Many people may opt not to get it. Many others may want it but will have to wait as supplies could be limited at first.

Control what you can

With no clear end in sight, experts encourage those feeling the pinch of pandemic fatigue to find ways to elevate their spirits.

“Control the things you can control,” said Thomas Duszynski, epidemiology education director for the Fairbanks School of Public Health. “Take this one step at a time. … I think people have to work their minds around: I can’t do everything I normally did, but what can I do?”

Make a list of everything that bothers you and try to make sure you have a daily routine. Get up, get showered, get dressed. Pay attention to your mental health.

Do a puzzle, take a walk or develop a new hobby, Patel suggests. He took his own advice and has learned woodworking in the past four or five months. He also started converting a van into a camper until the engine died, leading him to abandon the project.

Be aware of how much time you’re spending on screens and try to keep it to under two hours a day, he suggests. Use screens to drive away the negative feelings by downloading mindfulness and meditation apps like Calm or Headspace.

“The secondary outcome of discovering a new hobby is it takes your mind off the pandemic,” he said. “We need to be in the moment, appreciate what is going right in our lives right now and try not to worry about everything else, which is a big ask. But I think it can help people with pandemic frustration.”

For some people, limiting their interactions on social media also may provide respite for what can feel like a stream of bad news, experts say.

Employers are struggling to help employees through this time, Pferrer said. Much of this year’s Indiana Health and Wellness Summit scheduled to take place (virtually, of course) next week will focus on mental health issues. Employers have reached out, asking about ways to identify members of their workforce who may be in crisis, she said.

Amid reports of an increase in opioid overdose deaths and a rise in the use of naloxone, employers are asking for help about the best and safest strategies for bringing workers back to the manufacturing floor or office, Pferrer said.

The Wellness Council has been sharing ways for employers to keep employees engaged in the workplace, such as issuing a gratitude challenge and hosting a virtual happy hour every Friday to keep people personally connected.

“Employers need to stay flexible, they need to stay relevant and they really need to understand what their employees are challenged with,” she said.

No one is alone in this

Megan Stoner can remember back in March when the government made it sound like the United States would flatten the curve in 15 days.

More than 170 days later here we are. We’re putting graduations on hold, weddings on hold, neither having nor attending large funerals.

A year ago, Stoner, 22, would most likely have spent her Labor Day weekend at get-togethers with friends and family. This year the Fishers, Ind. resident had no plans.

Like others, Stoner is just trying to get by, she said.

“I just remind myself that I am not alone in this,” she said. “No one else is, either. We are all just going day to day.”

Some days, Walker said, she feels fine. Other days, not so much.

The Carmel, Ind. mother worries about what will happen when cold weather hits and removes the option of socializing outside.

And she is acutely aware that she is better off than many others. Her family is healthy. She can put her toddler in day care. Both she and her husband have jobs. If the situation is affecting her this way, how are people doing who are worse off?

Overbay, the social worker, spends time with families in need who are in difficult situations. She sees them struggling with the same question that those in her own circle keep asking: How much longer will the pandemic last?

“That’s a common situation,” she said. “The unknown. When it’s going to end.”