The Science Behind Pandemic Fatigue

Research helps us understand why we may be experiencing pandemic fatigue.

Posted Dec 31, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of collective trauma and has had far-reaching effects on millions of people around the world (to learn more about this, see my articles on "Trauma of Pandemic Proportions" and "What is Collective Trauma?").

As we enter 2021 and end a year of the world battling this pandemic, many find themselves feeling exhausted by this ongoing disaster and discouraged by the ambiguity of when this disaster will end. As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, many have found themselves feeling lonely and isolated, anxious, depressed, dealing with traumatic stress, along with several other psychological, physiological, and relational challenges. Understandably, many are experiencing “pandemic fatigue” as the question still looms of when this pandemic will end.

Aalok Atreya/Unsplash
As we continue to navigate the pandemic, many experience pandemic fatigue, overwhelm, and many continued challenges.
Source: Aalok Atreya/Unsplash

To understand what “pandemic fatigue” is, it can be helpful to understand the psychology behind disasters. A model that has been frequently utilized to understand the needs of individuals impacted by a disaster is the Phases of Disaster Model proposed by Zunin and Meyers, which has been described in research and has been utilized by the CDC (2005) in disaster training.

According to the Phases of Disaster Model, there are seven phases in disaster response. These stages include the predisaster phase, the impact phase, the rescue or heroic phase, the honeymoon phase, the inventory phase, the disillusionment phase, and the reconstruction and recovery phase (DeWolfe & Nordboe, 2000; SAMSHA, 2020; Spokane et al., 2011; For more information on this disaster model, see the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's description of it).

Based on the variables and timeframe surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Phases of Disaster Model, many might currently be finding themselves in the disillusionment phase. This is a phase in disaster response that can last for several months. During this stage, survivors of the disaster may begin to realize the limitations of disaster assistance or support and can experience exhaustion due to their ongoing financial, physiological, relational, safety, and psychological needs.

Individuals impacted by the disaster begin to further understand their loss and the gap between their current struggles and their life as it was before the disaster occurred. In this phase of the disaster response, stressors abound and can be unrelenting, discouragement and fatigue can begin to set in, division and hostility may surface, and survivors impacted by the disaster might feel alienated as others return to “normal” life.

As you read this description of the disillusionment phase, perhaps you relate, as you may find yourself feeling exhausted, fatigued, discouraged, dealing with ongoing stressors that feel unrelenting, and asking, “When will this end, and when will life get back to normal?” If this is your experience, you are not alone. The fatigue and stress that can be felt in this time of collective trauma can feel unrelenting and exhausting for many.

When we consider the neurobiology surrounding stress, the experience of fatigue and overwhelm, as seen in the disillusionment phase can be understood. In times of stress and disaster, our nervous system goes into a stress response that helps us to navigate the challenges we face and adapt. Although this is immensely helpful to us as it “wakes us up” to help us respond to the stressor in front of us, a long-term stress response can leave the nervous system feeling overwhelmed as our brain and body continue to be on high alert relentlessly (for more on this, see "Why Survival Mode Isn’t the Best Way to Live"). This can leave the nervous system exhausted and have consequences like those mentioned on our mental health, physiological health, and overall well-being (Harvard, 2018; Hormone Health Network, 2018).

Although it may be challenging to recognize that this may be the phase that many are in as we navigate this time of collective trauma, knowing where we are is the first step to responding to our needs. Just as when we are driving, to get where we want to go, we first need to know where we currently are on the journey.

Although the path in coping and taking care of ourselves will look different for each of us, there are some simple steps we can take in supporting ourselves. With disasters and collective trauma, our physical health, emotional health, relational health, and spiritual health can all be impacted. Because of this, each day, it can be helpful to take steps (no matter how simple) in supporting our well-being in each of these areas. See some examples below:

  • Physical Health: Sleep 8 hours, drink extra water, eat three meals, exercise, take a nap, go for a walk, etc.
  • Emotional Health: Journal, see a therapist, participate in creative activities or art, etc.
  • Relational Health: Call a friend, share your feelings with a loved one, express your gratitude to someone, volunteer, etc.
  • Spiritual Health: Pray, meditate, read a spiritual or faith-based book, etc.  

Today, if we find ourselves navigating the “disillusionment phase road,” may we meet ourselves where we are with compassion, kindness, and empathy.

References

Centers for Disease Control. (2005). Disaster mental health primer: Key principles, issues, and questions. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from emergency.cdc .gov/mentalhealth/pdf/primer.pdf

DeWolfe, D. J., 2000. Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters (2nd ed., HHS Publication No. ADM 90-538)

Render Turmaud, D. (2020). Trauma of pandemic proportions. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifting-the-veil-trauma/202003/trauma-pandemic-proportions

Render Turmaud, D. (2020). What is collective trauma? Psychology Today.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifting-the-veil-trauma/20200

Render Turmaud, D. (2020). Why survival mode isn't the best way to live. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifting-the-veil-trauma/202006/why-survival-mode-isnt-the-best-way-live

Understanding the stress response. (2018). Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Spokane AR, Inman AG, Weatherford RD, Davidson AK, Straw R. Ecologically Based, Culturally Concordant Responding Following Disasters: The Counseling Psychologist’s Role. The Counseling Psychologist. 2011;39(8):1128-1159. doi:10.1177/0011000010397933What is adrenaline? (2018).