I am stressed and tired all the time - COVID-19 exhaustion and grief
Updated: Sep 29
We are all experiencing the ups and downs of COVID-19 protocols where here in Australia we are beginning to ease some restrictions on movements, but we are still in need of physical distancing and modified social behaviours as the second wave emerges. Humans, or at least the very old, primal 'lizard brain' of humans, do not necessarily respond well to change - so our stress, anxiety, mood swings, and varying levels of engagement with the world are normal responses. However, we don't experience our responses as 'normal' because very little of this ongoing uncertainty feels good; we are all in grief. Grief is stressful, tiring, and unpredictable in that it often comes in waves at unexpected moments - but there are some very useful and simple things we can do to promote our own resilience to grief processes while maintaining physical distance.
In this series of posts, Gentle Reader, we look at small, home-based steps for managing the grief of our large-scale social changes - today we look at the bone-deep tiredness we are experiencing as a result of COVID-19 and how to allow a change in the way we see work 'outputs'.
Exhaustion is one of the strongest indicators of burnout and depression, but while we recognise exhaustion and tiredness as part of a raw, initial grief response, we don't always acknowledge that extended grief over time can run in tandem with long-term tiredness*. *Regular Gentle Readers are quite death literate however, and therefore understand this correlation. Well done you!
In December 2019 the world began to realise what a incredibly infectious illness the novel coronavirus is; so much so that currently a good deal of the globe is operating under restriction-based health protocols designed to minimise the spread of infection. What no-one realised at the outset however, was quite what a toll separation from regular routine, physical presence, and social connection would take on communities and individuals alike - we have not experienced a pandemic phenomenon at this level for a century, and we had largely forgotten the stories and data from N1H1. The abrupt and ongoing severance of our face-to-face social connections - underscored by the fact that we have no idea exactly of when we will be able to move about freely without fear of contagion - has meant that the equally abrupt change in our routines is a reality we have no control over. This sense of powerlessness as we feel out of control which COVID-19 brought into our daily lives is one of the big contributors to our overall tiredness; remember that lizard brain does not like change.
There are many cultural narratives that encourage us to keep 'doing', but when we are exhausted and feeling depleted the 'doing' is far less appealing that the 'doing nothing' option we wish we could crawl over to and embrace. (And possibly snuggle under the covers with all day...) Recognising that we have a right to own and navigate our tiredness may be an act of personal freedom and even rebellion, which perversely may drive some of us to push even further through the miasma of tiredness in fruitless efforts to work our way out of exhaustion and onto the comforting shores of feeling good and balanced again. Rebellion can actually sometimes be about asserting our right to prove everyone else wrong; unfortunately, that way madness, and sometimes serious mental and physical illness lies that way. For those who are on a hamster wheel of 'doing' in terms of working at home, I recommend this Freelance Jungle post, which is filled with slow-down tips for those experiencing burnout. For those of us who are experiencing our exhaustion more as a personal-personal, as opposed to personal-professional, circumstance then organising the work day will probably not be the most effective approach, but a look at cultural and social contexts may help to make slowing down and acknowledging exhaustion more acceptable.
First of all, let's be honest: grief is tiring - and a denial of tiredness, particularly in times of long-term or extended grief, acts to compound and deepen the experience and strength of our tiredness. This is part of the reason the political messages about 'getting back to normal' are striking such a powerful chord with so many people: we all want to stop feeling so tired, helpless, and grief-stricken all the time. We also would like to feel more in control of our lives - a sense of control is helpful when we are attempting to process overwhelming change. This goes some way towards explaining why there is so much resistance to taking preventative measures like wearing masks and maintaining distance, although there are also entrenched colonial, cis/het, white supremacy narratives feeding into a mindset of 'exceptionalism'. I am not going to delve into these factors in this post, however it is both prudent and vital to acknowledge that there some contributing elements beyond COVID-19 in response to grief and tiredness (and I do not wish to either mask or excuse wilful ignorance - yes, if you refuse to mask up and maintain distance you are being wilfully ignorant). However, that being said, opening up movement and thinking we are 'ok' to go back to work NOW is not necessarily healthy for several reasons, some of which are:
We know from history that pandemics of the COVID-19 kind will come in waves. We are coming out of the first wave (where here in Australia we got off very lightly and I am grateful for this fact), but as the southern hemisphere moves into colder weather the second and third waves of the virus may be more virulent than the first round.
'Working' our way out of grief and the associated tiredness is not a sustainable choice. Eventually we need to surrender to the exhaustion and the grief (sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem) and allow ourselves to stop - or at the very least slow down extensively - so that we can replenish, take stock of our priorities and wishes, and rest.
Long-term denial of grief and exhaustion can contribute to depression, auto-immune and other physical health concerns, damage our social connections and sense of connectivity to the world, and hasten our deaths due to stress.
Pushing our way through grief and tiredness is clearly not an ideal solution. There are sensible and everyday things we can do instead, which can help to foster and support our overwhelm and tiredness in grief right now.
Pets are great! Regular Gentle Readers know how dog-friendly both myself and GDEP are, but a dog is not the only pet out there - cats, giant burrowing cockroaches, birds, fish, reptiles, insects and arachnids all make fantastic pets. It all depends on the kind of personality you have, and the amount of physical space you have in order to offer your pet the best possible quality of life. Think carefully about your financial as well as your time budget before investing in a pet, and remember that you also need to calculate your time, emotional, and financial budgets to accommodate projected lifespan. A rabbit, for example, will live fewer years than a cat, and smaller dogs live longer than larger breeds. Remember, too, that the price of love is that we get to say goodbye - your pet's life, like our own, has a guaranteed end point. However, the gift and bonus of having a pet is that you will be loved unconditionally (dogs), reminded of your place in the servitude hierarchy (cats), or treated as a food delivery system (reptiles and fish, but it does not mean they are not attached to you personally) - but never as someone who doesn't matter. The benefits of owning a pet are well-evidenced, and many. Pets keep us in a routine and remind us that life can be far more than our immediate topic of focus. You can also save a life when you acquire a pet, and shelters will appreciate you adopting from them.
Plants are great! Not all of us are, at heart, an animal person so a living alternative to try is plants. One of the often overlooked benefits of plants is that (location dependent) you can enjoy time outdoors with plants in broadly the same way you can your pet - discounting long walks, unless you are so inclined. The obvious outdoor area for those who live in larger spaces is the garden area of a house, villa or townhouse, but apartments often have balcony areas, and ground-floor apartments and studios may have small areas where pot plants can thrive. If you are in a high-rise or live in an attic you can often access the roof - if there isn't a garden in the sky when you move in, you can readily make one. Even a small spot with a few pot plants can help calm and relax you. For studio and small-space dwellers window boxes are great for kitchen herbs and bright colours (think Mediterranean geraniums, for example). There are also low-light plants and grow lights if you live in a space that does not have direct light.
Plants help clean the air, and do offer mental and other health benefits, without the time and cost commitments of a pet. Plants, like pets, are living creatures and help remind us of positive aspects of life and living. When we are tired and in grief these small reminders can be invaluable.
Movement is great! Even when in lockdown we can still stretch and move at home, and it is important to invigorate our circulatory system on a regular basis now that working from home is such a normal part of our day to day schedule. Following a long to a stretch video or joining in with a live dance class can be fun and help us to feel a bit more lively and connected to our bodies. Numbness in terms of body awareness is common in grief and depression alike, so movement becomes even more imperative. Even though you may not want to move, ensuring you do have a regular routine of movement will help you to feel better, as movement releases endorphins in the body - literally, these are our 'feel-good' chemicals.
If you are able to safely exit your home and get some movement outside you can actually double-up on some of the helpful areas discussed here - take your dog for a walk in a park (leashed, please) so your dog can whiff new sniffs, and you can be near a variety of plants while enjoying movement in a new environment. Studies also confirm that an exercise routine that does not vary is less efficacious over time, and small rewards (variety can be a 'reward') are helpful. Remember, our bodies can become bored, just as our minds can, so if you are able to shift your movement routine around from time to time you will feel more invigorated and refreshed afterwards. If there are flowers that come your way during your walk, do stop and sniff or admire them. Beauty in the midst of grief can be wonderfully softening, reminding us of the positives in life, so enjoy what is before you. My dog Cully also loves to smell flowers, and has a habit of sticking his nose in to enjoy the fragrance. Be like Cully and dive right in!
Being just social enough is great! You may find that a quick phone call is more fun in this time of ongoing Zoom video calls, why not call a good friend for a quick chat when you take your morning tea break? You don't need to talk for long, but keeping connected is quite important when we are tired and/or grieving. In fact, a quick check-in without the expectation of a long chat can help give us a boost without pushing us further into tiredness and overwhelm.
You can also let your friends know that you need quick calls, or texts, to say 'hi'. There is no need to explain why, you can even make a game of it: for example, the most funny GIF of the day, or the most obscure emoji sequence might be the day's 5 minute engagement challenge. Let people know what your boundaries are up front, and you will be surprised at how supportive they can be; remembering, too, your friends are experiencing the same levels of tiredness and overwhelm that you are and may be quite relieved to know someone else wants just a quickie chat, too. Walking away from work is great! I wrote a post about rest as part of an earlier post, so I will simply remind you here that you 'do' enough, and you are enough. Close your computer down and get some rest - grief is not anything that we work our way through, although I think it is a sensible strategy to try and rest regularly as a way to cope with the inherently non-linear, wave-like action and resurgence of grief. When we are rested we are more effective work-wise, too - so get away from your work at regular intervals and don't try to make excessively long hours your work routine as a response to grief. You will burn out and you will (ironically enough) require a good deal more rest to pull back from a burned out state than you do now.
Just stop. Truly, you have done enough for now.
Grief is not so great though. We also need to recognise that grief itself can be a trigger in and of itself - especially if we have disenfranchised grief, complex grief, or unresolved grief (or Option E: all of the above). Essentially what this means is that we can become locked in a self-sustaining cycle of griefs, which can in turn feel like an inescapable whirlpool, hindering daily function, encouraging dissociation/dissociative behaviours, and negatively impacting both our work and personal interactions. In these instances it is always good practice to reach out to your mental health professional if you have one, and to ensure you have access to any prescription drugs you take regularly. Do not judge yourself for engaging with your therapist, or for needing support in achieving your internal chemical balance - I put shoes on my feet when I go outside, glasses on my nose to read, so prescription drugs to manage mood and anxiety serve similar internal processes in that they can help us to navigate and see the world better. Short-term or long-term, do not make room for stigma or shame or for anyone who tries to stigmatise or shame you, either. In grief and exhaustion we all need positive, supportive people around us as much as possible, and boundaries and rest are incredibly important.
If you would like to talk to a mental health counsellor Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Twenty10, and Headspace offer confidential and trained support services across Australia. If you are interested in talking with me personally please email firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment.
Above all, please try to remember that although you may feel isolated and alone in your exhaustion and grief, the opposite is in fact the case. We are all tired, all the time. We are all in grief, and in this commonatlity of experience may lie a path towards more effective social connection. Be kind to yourself right now, and try to be kind to those around you. Let's talk. And be kind - if you would like support or if you have questions please email me at email@example.com for an appointment today.