Crisis Fatigue: Are We Emotionally Overwhelmed?
July 21, 2020 — With coronavirus cases surging under California’s reopening plan, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently ordered certain sectors, including bars, indoor dining, theaters, and bowling alleys, to close again. Online, crisis fatigue erupted. Residents vented long-simmering frustrations, casting blame on the governor and on each other.
Half a year into the coronavirus pandemic, mental health experts worry that many Americans have reached a point of becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
Anger, frustration, disappointment, and hopelessness have flared across the nation. In California, people took to social media to express their feelings. Some even pushed for recalling Newsom.
“The dictator continues on his path of destruction,” David Wohl tweeted about the governor.
Others pushed back at perceived scofflaws.
The effort to recall the governor, according to Twitter user Nancy Lee Grahn, “is from the same selfish incredibly stupid bunch who just had to brunch, beach, bar maskless & spread their infected droplets all over the state. You did this & now you’re mad? Tough luck, jerks. The Gov is correct & protecting ur undeserving a–, so stop whining.”
It’s Natural to Feel Anxiety and Grief
It’s not only the pandemic. Americans are facing economic distress and racial injustice, too. “Most of us are equipped to manage one crisis or maybe a couple of crises simultaneously,” says Arianna Galligher, associate director of Ohio State University’s Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program, which treats people who have psychological trauma. “But when everything is sort of coming to a head all at once, there comes a point where our typical means of coping becomes overwhelmed, and the result is crisis fatigue.”
While crisis fatigue is not an official diagnosis, its effects are real. People can feel so overwhelmed that they’re unsure of how to move forward, she says.
When people have crisis fatigue, it’s natural for them to feel a mixture of exhaustion, rage, disgust, despair, desperation, hypervigilance, anxiety, and grief, according to Galligher.
As the crises have worn on, not only have tempers frayed, but many people feel less energetic and motivated, says Karestan Koenen, PhD, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“In the beginning [of the pandemic], people were scheduling Zoom dates, Zoom parties, Zoom gaming nights,” she says. But she’s noticed more stress and burnout, including among workers who are sheltering in place and perhaps raising children, too. “We’re privileged if we can work at home,” Koenen says. “But if we work at home, there’s no division anymore between home and work.”
Being unemployed is even more dire. As various parts of the country have reopened, some employees have been able to go back to work cutting hair, waiting tables, and selling movie tickets. But even with attempts to restore parts of our previous life, many people remain sad and disappointed that things haven’t gotten better, Koenen says. “In places where things are reopening some, it’s not the same. They realize it’s going to be a long haul.”
Some people appear to have given up trying. In early July, Jennifer Morse, MD, a public health official in Michigan, told the news organization Bridge that she’s seeing a new complication: COVID fatigue. She has spotted more crowds and fewer masks, as has Peter Gulick, DO, an infectious disease expert in Lansing, MI. “It’s like they’re tired of it, they don’t care,” he said. “It’s, ‘Doggone it, I’m not going to eat my spinach anymore.’”
A Different Type of Threat
Despite crisis fatigue, the threat remains real and pervasive. As a psychiatric epidemiologist, Koenen studies the mental health fallout of disasters. This crisis is different from disasters such as a hurricane or terrorist attack. With those events, “It’s very severe initially, and then there’s sort of a linear improvement” as affected communities recover, she says.
But with the coronavirus, there’s no recovery yet, she says. “That’s what’s been different. We’re still in it.” She compares the pandemic to other chronic, severe stressors with no obvious end point — more similar to long-term conflicts and war, or displacement and refugee camps.
“For most of us, if there’s a clear end in sight, it’s a little easier to gather the necessary energy to cope in the short term. But when a crisis crosses over into more of a chronic crisis, it’s more difficult to tap into those energy reserves,” Galligher says. “A lot of people are starting to ask some of those more existential questions, like ‘What are we going to do, and is this the new normal? How do we proceed as a culture?’”
Galligher and Koenen, who have counseling backgrounds, offered advice on how to combat the challenges of crisis fatigue.
Spend your energy intentionally
Instead of feeling daunted by so many crises in the world, choose one or two priorities where you want to have an impact, Galligher says. You can use your personal efforts, voice, or money to contribute to a meaningful goal.
For example, some of her colleagues were deeply troubled by the wildfires in Australia during the past year. “They weren’t in a position to head to Australia with fire hoses,” she says. “But they were absolutely in a position to send some extra capital toward wildlife rescue and to support the folks who were on the front lines trying to fight these fires.”
Pursue things that give you joy and hope
No one needs to be reminded that the world is awash in problems. In the midst of the turmoil, “You have to actively decide to find joy,” Koenen says. “Make that an active practice.”
She takes time from her busy schedule to walk outside, pull up a favorite song, or hang out with her son and dog.
Such moments make life worthwhile, Galligher says. Notice the things, big or small, that bring lightness and humor to your day.
Take breaks, take care
Pay attention to when you’re feeling tired and overwhelmed, Galligher says. Allow yourself to take a break from the stress and engage in a healthy, soothing distraction. You’re not being selfish, she says. Taking care of yourself is an act of maintenance and self-preservation.
Koenen agrees. While giving and altruism are valuable in times of trouble, they can come at a cost if we’re not careful. “The needs are so great that it’s easy for the average person, in the interest of being helpful, to burn themselves out.”
Pick your battles wisely
The mask vs. no mask battle rages on, producing some uncomfortable and occasionally violent confrontations. Black Lives Matter protesters have gotten into arguments with those who proclaim that all lives matter.
Right now, many of us are engaging in important conversations with those who disagree with us, Galligher says. You can’t control how others will behave during such exchanges, but you can control your own actions and decide when it’s time to end a discussion that’s going nowhere — or to not engage in the first place.
Take a break from the news
“We all need to turn off the media at times,” Koenen says. Leaving the TV on in the background all day can increase our sense of crisis fatigue. Instead, take a few hours away from the news and from social media to refresh yourself.
Much of Koenen’s career has focused on trauma, so she’s learned to create boundaries to avoid becoming overwhelmed by her subject matter. For instance, she doesn’t do any studying on trauma before bedtime, she says.
We’re already feeling isolated because of shutdown orders, but emotional connection and support can be healing for those who feel overwhelmed. Talk to someone you trust about how stress is affecting you, Galligher says.
Don’t consider your crisis fatigue as something abnormal, she says. Feeling angry and despairing in the face of intense and prolonged stress is a common and understandable reaction.
Remember that we’ll come out on the other side.
While the crises confronting us are vast, we can draw on the personal strengths that have helped us in the past, Koenen says.
“Most people have had times in their lives where things have been really bad and have gone on for a long time — a family member who’s been sick or had a chronic illness. Thinking about those times and how you got through them would be helpful.”
The country has faced calamities before, “things like the Great Depression, these other large, catastrophic events that went on for many years at a societal level,” she says.
“We have had major crises before, and there’s always another side — where we’ve come out of that.”