Yes, You're Experiencing Another Wave of COVID-19 Fatigue
Learned helplessness is taking over. Here's how to fight it.
Posted Dec 10, 2020
To say that 2020 has been a rough year is an understatement. You may have felt some sense of relief when you heard that vaccines would be arriving in a few months. However, if you are in the U.S., you looked up where you are in the "waiting line" for the vaccine, and your hopes were dashed yet again.
You've been stressed out trying to work and monitor your child's online schooling. Then schools opened up in your district, and you felt some sense of trepidation due to the virus, but you also felt a sense of relief. That feeling lasted about two weeks until your child's classmate tested positive for COVID-19. Now your child is doing online schooling again.
You're a health care worker who has seen person after person being admitted with COVID-19. Some make it through to be discharged; many do not. Now cases are increasing exponentially, and you are having to endure even more death and calls to patients' loved ones so they can say their final goodbyes.
It may seem like getting your hopes up and then having things fall apart can be tougher than not having anything to look forward to at all. There's a name for this type of feeling—learned helplessness. It is a feeling of powerlessness, like no matter what you do, it won't change your circumstances.
When you get knocked down repeatedly by life's circumstances, learned helplessness can be the result. You feel like you don't have control over anything anymore. Your brain is in a constant "what's next?" mode. Learned helplessness, if left unchecked, can lead to depression and anxiety symptoms.
Increase Your Psychological Flexibility
When learned helplessness increases, so does the buffer of psychological flexibility. In other words, psychological flexibility fights back harder the more you start feeling learned helplessness. If you have psychological flexibility, you are less likely to experience depression from learned helplessness.
Psychological flexibility has been found to not only improve general well-being but also specifically helps lower distress related to COVID-19. Psychological flexibility is a way of responding that is a separate concept from what we consider as "coping."
So what is psychological flexibility, and how can you increase it in your life? Psychological flexibility is a concept found in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, among other therapeutic modalities. It's the ability to recognize and adapt to change, shift behavior or perspective when things aren't going well, maintain a sense of balance over the different domains of your life, and have behaviors that match your values.
Psychological flexibility doesn't mean that you act like something isn't happening or doesn't exist. That would be a form of toxic positivity or denial. It's acknowledging that, yes, this unwanted thing exists, and it is out of my control. However, I have control over how I respond to it.
Acknowledging unpleasant emotions may actually be more helpful than focusing on positive emotions. This is because negative emotions may be more useful in making progress towards goals that you value.
One way to improve psychological flexibility is to engage in activities that encourage mindfulness. Although mindfulness may seem esoteric, there are some activities that are easily accessible. Mindfulness is paying attention to the here and now, without self-judgment.
One mindfulness practice is to pay attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale. The idea is that the more you can get into a state of mindfulness, the more you become conscious of your environment. This then makes you more aware of what you do have control over and what you can do to practice good self-care.
Practicing acceptance is also important in gaining psychological flexibility. Acceptance isn't condoning. You are not saying everything is OK. You are saying that the situation is what it is, and you know what you have control over and what you don't have control over.
Acceptance is a multistep process. You usually don't just decide to accept something. It can take some time.
Clarifying your values also can lead to greater psychological flexibility. What do you value most in life? What principles do you follow when making decisions? There is no right or wrong answer—we all have variations in our core values. When you are clear about your values, you tend to make decisions that are more in line with what you most treasure in life. The goal of life isn't happiness—it's finding meaning in your life.
Dawson, D. L., & Golijani-Moghaddam, N. (2020). COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. Journal of contextual behavioral science, 17, 126-134.
Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 865–878. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001
Trindade, I. A., Mendes, A. L., & Ferreira, N. B. (2020). The moderating effect of psychological flexibility on the link between learned helplessness and depression symptomatology: A preliminary study. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 15, 68-72.