As we’re moving toward the one-year mark of the pandemic, it may be time to admit that we’re not okay. Some days are fine, but many people are quietly suffering, overwhelmed by conflicting news stories, stifled due to sheltering at home, and frustrated talking about planning plans that can’t be planned (still).
It’s cold, we’re weary and unmotivated. Despite this, we muster a “hanging in there” response when asked how we’re doing, skipping “by a very thin and tattered thread,” which reflects more accurately how we feel.
Many have experienced the hardships of layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs. These circumstances are extremely difficult during normal times, never mind in a pandemic that’s created a volatile and highly competitive market.
Our jobs are our livelihoods. They provide structure and meaning and shape identity. For many, work is the basis of social relationships, mental stimulation and physical activity. So, it’s understandable how long-term unemployment or a major change in work circumstances can have a devastating impact, and a spillover effect into other areas of our lives.
If this resonates, you’re not alone. Even the most resilient individuals are experiencing the impact of pandemic burnout. While there are rarely quick fixes, there are several research-backed techniques that can help.
Don’t dismiss your feelings. Compartmentalizing emotions can be a helpful coping mechanism on occasion, but feelings will wait patiently to be addressed. While finding silver linings can help balance negativity, dismissing your own emotions because “others have it much worse” just compounds the problem, making you feel both sad and guilty. Take care of yourself: Acknowledge your anger, loneliness, sadness or anxiety. Ask yourself what you might advise a good friend to do when feeling this way, and then take your own advice. If bad days come and go, simple re-sets may be enough. Give yourself permission to chill out in your PJs with Netflix. Spend the afternoon with the book that’s been sitting on your nightstand. Ask a neighbor to watch the kids for a few hours while you grab a nap.
Foundation is key. While some advice is easier said than done, there is much evidence that the basics like good sleep, a balanced diet, daily movement and supportive relationships account for a great deal of well-being. It’s true that many of our habits have changed in the last year in response to the pandemic. However, if your coping strategies are doing more harm than good, it may be time to revisit them. Get back to the basics: Identify one area to change and start there. Trying to make multiple changes simultaneously may cause all of them to flounder. Set a timer to get up and stretch or do some quick squats every hour during the workday. Trade-off unhealthy beverages with water twice per day. Have a telehealth meeting with your doctor about how to improve your sleep hygiene.
Baby steps. When depression takes hold, sometimes even the most basic things seem incredibly daunting. Facing the day with a lengthy to-do list can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Research shows that breaking down large goals into smaller chunks helps you to accomplish them. You can use this strategy to inspire energy when things feel formidable. Break it down: Commit to a task like working, cleaning or exercising for only five minutes, then stop if you like. Most people will keep going, and the reason this works is because the brain is “tricked” to get past the hardest part, which is usually getting started.
Connect (or isolate). There are few “one-size-fits-all” techniques that work for everyone, so tune into your needs and take steps that work for you. While research shows that connecting with supportive people in our lives can boost our moods, sometimes we require quiet space to reset. Having supportive relationships in your life that you know you can count on is different than interacting constantly. Honor your needs: If the Zoom meeting with friends is energizing, bring some conversation starters and enjoy. If you need an evening off from online interactions, phone calls and text messages, take it.
Help someone else. Research shows that helping others actually does a lot to boost our own mood. Whether you feel comfortable volunteering in-person or are looking for opportunities that can be completed from your couch, there are many options to choose from. Create some joy: It doesn’t matter if your preference is finding a formal opportunity on a website like VolunteerMatch or offering to shovel your neighbor’s walkway — volunteering gives you purpose and structure. Small niceties like mailing greeting cards or baking for a friend can engage your talents and make someone’s day, while also returning the emotional favor.
Do one thing differently each day. This is one of my favorite solution-focused techniques. Whether stuck in a career rut or struggling with cabin fever, the act of intentionally choosing to do one thing differently each day gets us out of a rut and forces our brains to stop over relying on habits that may be contributing to our negative feelings. Make change a habit: Sit at a different place at the dinner table. Brush with your non-dominant hand. Watch a new program. Try a new recipe. It really doesn’t matter what it is or how long it takes. The conscious act of mixing things up will enable you to see the world from a different perspective, which may lead to creative ideas and interesting discoveries.
Get support. There’s a reason that mental health professionals have seen a massive uptick in the request for services. We all need extra support in these unprecedented times. In the same way we’re taking precautions around our physical health by wearing masks, social distancing and staying home, it’s equally important to be proactive about our mental health. Find help: Support comes in many forms – a therapist, career coach, clergy, friend, mentor – and most of us engage with a variety of these supports at different times throughout our lives. The world we live in is complex, and rarely predictable. The events of the past year have proven that. Most services are available via telehealth, phone or even text, and offer a variety of reasonable payment options. If you are looking for a qualified mental health professional in your area, please check these resources: NAMI, SAMHSA, TalkSpace.
One of my personal favorite ways to quickly de-stress is to relax my face. It may sound strange, but when I stop what I’m doing occasionally to tune into my body, I often find that my jaw and fists are clenched and my shoulders are tight, even though there’s no rational reason. Our bodies often recognize our emotions before our brains, so it helps to pay attention.