Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic is HARD.
Many of us have been engaging in varying forms of quarantine, isolation, and social distancing for 18 months.
Over the spring and summer, the roll out of the vaccine brought some hope. Just in time to enjoy warmer temperatures and sunshine.
Post-vaccination, many people started spending time with friends and loved ones again. With the rise of Delta variant, we are now quickly returning to our respective bubbles.
Those working in public-facing positions are feeling the drain of being in a constant state of anxiety and hypervigilance. Of not being sure when or if you might have been exposed. And working longer hours, or without enough staff due to coworker illnesses and increased turnover rates.
Another Winter in Isolation
Meanwhile, the Northern hemisphere is heading back into fall and winter. A time of year that is already challenging for many. When cold weather and less daylight hours means less opportunity for exercise or socializing outdoors.
Where all the rituals and celebrations which provide connection and hope in the dark and the cold may have to be cancelled…again.
And at the same time, there is a cultural pressure to move forward as if nothing has changed.
We are being asked to return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity.
Federal unemployment benefits have ended for many. And another round of stimulus payments before the end of the year remains unlikely.
While workers in many industries are going on strike, others may feel pressured to return to unsafe work environments out of financial necessity.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
You may be feeling a general sense of exhaustion, or malaise.
It might be hard to motivate yourself to go to work. Or keep up with household chores or meal planning.
Trying to even decide what to do might be stifled by brain fog or inability to focus.
You might be experiencing insomnia. Or possibly sleeping too much.
You may not be reaching out as much to friends or family.
You haven’t been doing anything. There’s nothing to say. No exciting updates.
Just passing around shared stress. Which can be exhausting when there’s no solution. No solace anyone can offer.
All of this is normal (as in, to be expected).
And at the same time, not normal at all (as in, a series of events which can be anticipated or planned for, and becomes normalized over time).
The Long-Term Toll on Your Nervous System
Our bodies were designed to respond to immediate threats in the environment.
Think of our nomadic ancestors, living in small settlements.
What would they have needed to worry about? Changes in weather patterns, natural disasters, predatory animals, or possible attacks from neighboring settlements.
Your nervous system was designed to help you run away from a bear attack.
Not survive a 2-year-long pandemic.
In times of stress, your body gets pumped full of hormones and neurochemicals to help you respond quickly.
But your body is supposed to metabolize those hormones and return to a stress-free baseline.
Without that recovery period, you can experience a build-up of stress hormones that has a negative impact on your health.
This article talks more about surge capacity – a term to describe that flood of adrenaline and cortisol which helps you act quickly in an emergency.
Think of a battery. It is less able to hold a charge over time. It needs to be plugged in more frequently.
Your nervous system may be reacting in a similar way.
You may be able to do less before you need to take a break. That is normal!
What Can You Do?
Recognizing that this is happening is the first step!
One thing that can really help is reducing your expectations for yourself.
Prioritizing what absolutely HAS to get done, and what can wait.
Maybe you cross some things off your to-do list.
You buy more prepared foods. Or increase your take-out budget.
It is okay to leave your clean laundry in the clothes hamper instead of putting it away.
Set realistic expectations for yourself.
If something feels too hard, trust that feeling. Think of a way to break the task into smaller steps.
And don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish it.
Move Your Body
All those stress hormones get stored in your body.
Plus, you may be more sedentary than you used to be.
That can also contribute to muscle stiffness.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym.
You can go for a walk.
Do some light stretching before bed.
Even standing up every hour or two has positive health benefits.
Active rest is when you are focused on an activity, so your brain can do some work in the background.
Any task that requires repetitive motion can help!
This could be yard work, chopping vegetables, or even things like knitting.
Draw a picture. Journal. Fold your laundry even if you don’t put it away.
Any of these tasks can help your mind recharge.
Active rest is different from passive rest. Passive rest is when you “tune out.” Like sitting in front of the TV.
Passive rest is okay, too. But try to mix things up. Give you brain a chance to recharge before trying to go to sleep.
Be Kind to Yourself
Self-care doesn’t work if it is really just another excuse to self-criticize or self-shame!
None of these tips are meant to be an expectation to add to your to-do list.
Learn to forgive yourself.
Remind yourself that NO ONE knows how to deal with this pandemic.
Even the people who you think are navigating it better than you are probably struggling.
Imagine that you are telling your best friend about how you feel.
How would they respond?
Then, practice saying those things to yourself.
It is really challenging to cope with a stressor that doesn’t have an expiration date.
It is okay to take things one day at a time.
If you want to learn more about all of this, I created a course.
You can learn more about how stress and trauma impact your nervous system. And get more techniques to help you cope and move through it.
Even if it doesn’t feel that way, you are not alone.
We are still all in this together. And everything you’re doing to keep your community safe makes a difference.