You might expect, after a year of living with restrictions and extreme uncertainty, that at this point in the coronavirus pandemic – with vaccines available in the United States and cities and businesses reopening – people would be full. of energy and enthusiasm, ready to go out and get things done.
But instead, many people find themselves particularly exhausted and tired. Simple activities and socialization are followed by a real need for rest and recovery. Reinstatements of mask warrants following a slight increase in COVID-19 cases are causing a resurgence of anxiety.
Trauma specialists aren’t surprised people are feeling the weight right now. It is only after the trauma begins to subside that people even begin to feel and become aware of the physiological aftershock.
Over a year of chronic stress and trauma can have a huge impact on our health, it damages the immune system, disrupts our circadian rhythms and seriously tires us out. Our body has suffered a lot. No wonder we are so tired.
How trauma causes fatigue
We have all experienced some sort of trauma from the pandemic. Many people have experienced direct trauma – they themselves have fallen ill or a loved one has been diagnosed or exposed to COVID-19. We were constantly faced with the threat of becoming seriously ill and, for those most at risk, of dying.
We have also been repeatedly exposed to death and disease via the media, and we know that exposure to distressing news is associated with traumatic stress and other mental health symptoms. And due to the restrictions linked to the pandemic, people have not had access to the support systems and coping capacities that they would normally turn to, said Sarah lowe, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health.
When our stress systems are chronically activated – as they have been throughout the pandemic – our bodies begin to experience some wear and tear. Traumatic experiences weaken the immune system, affect our circadian rhythms, and adversely affect our digestive health, Lowe said. When we are actively going through a traumatic experience, our bodies produce extra energy to fight mental and physical stressors. The body goes into survivor mode, and without time to recover, it can deplete our energy stores.
Often, it is only after the traumatic event has passed and our body comes out of survival mode that the physiological effects hit us and start to take their toll. Through his research on disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Tonya Hansel, an associate professor at Tulane University School of Social Work who specializes in mental health and disaster trauma, found that people typically don’t have the time or space to meet their mental health needs during disasters because they are too busy figuring out how to get out of it.
“It’s only when the stressor starts to be removed that we can really see what this toll has done,” said Hansel.
On top of all of this, as we are at a crossroads in the pandemic, there is still some level of uncertainty. Unvaccinated people remain at risk for the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, and the creepy headlines may have caused people to be vaccinated for fear of their protection (which the data shows is fine overall). And any change, no matter how good, can be painful.
“Even though these are positive changes and people come out into the world, it’s still a change, in the sense that I think it can be stressful on the body,” Lowe said.
How to deal with trauma-induced fatigue
The biggest step is to practice good sleep hygiene. Give your body the rest it needs. Lowe’s three tips for this: Avoid caffeine at night, don’t exercise before bed, and turn off your devices an hour before bed.
During the day, allow time for catering. Meditate, do yoga, take a walk, or spend time with your loved ones. Don’t feel like you have to fill your schedule with activities now that the company has reopened.
“Try to slow down and have compassion on yourself as these positive experiences might be trying, and make room for rest and recovery,” Lowe said.
Set smaller goals and find new coping methods. The last thing you want to do is put more stress on your body because you’re not coming back to normal as quickly as you would like, Hansel said.
“Start small and make small changes that bring joy to your life,” she advised.
There is no clear timeline for how long it will take each of us to recover. Some people may notice improvements fairly quickly, but a lot of people are likely to continue to struggle in one way or another over the next several months.
If you’re feeling truly exhausted and fatigue is affecting your work, relationships, or school or family life, consider seeking help from a counselor or mental health professional, Lowe said.
Above all, be patient with yourself. “It’s not fair if we hold our bodies accountable for changing overnight,” said Hansel. “Just as it was a slow process that developed up to this stress, fatigue is also going to be a slow process in reducing that stress.”