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Pandemic Fatigue Can Look Like Depression

Reignite altruism, because we are all in this together.

I was in a shop recently that had some retro posters on the walls, and one of them was Rosie the Riveter poster from WWII: “We Can Do It!” When our nation went to war, it was clear that the whole population had to be behind the effort and support each other in suffering. The government recruited artists to create these kinds of posters to foster unity and increase efforts to save gas by carpooling, to collect scrap metal for manufacturing military hardware, to save food, and even accept food rationing. The nation was at war and everyone was urged to be part of the effort. Unity and altruism were emotionally protective during those years of hardship.

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Americans are facing the current national crisis without altruism and community spirit, and, as a therapist, I am seeing pandemic anxiety give way to pandemic depression. I listen to clients:

  • Karen,* in her 60s, wept that she could no longer be present at her grandchild’s birth because her daughter, Ashleigh,* decided Karen had been careless about physical distancing from others just days before traveling to be present for the birth. Ashleigh sent her mother away and that rift will take a long time to heal.
  • Mike* and Cindy* may break up what is promising to be a great relationship they did not expect to find in their 50s because Mike won’t join her big family for the holidays. They travel from various locales, and gatherings will all be indoors with people close together. Cindy says, “We are family, so it will be okay,” and Mike says they are all putting each other at risk — a risk he does not want to take just for one holiday season.
  • Max,* 8 years old, has been sad at school, crying, and is unable to get homework done, because his dad has to quarantine in the house after a COVID positive test. Max cannot hug his dad and get reassurance that his dad won’t die. His friends tell him he is being a baby; their parents tell them this is not a big deal.
  • Karaline* was accosted and frightened in a parking lot as she left work as a man screamed at her for wearing a mask, touting that the virus is a hoax and she should not believe what others were saying.

All of these situations carry with them a sense of aloneness and are missing the unity that could assuage the sadness of being separated and in conflict.

There is little chance that we will escape a winter of increasing emotional challenges as we go into the holiday season with rates of infection rising dramatically. Clients tell me they don’t know what to do about the holidays. They are imagining scenarios of conflict with family members. They cannot decide if it is safe to fly or if they should drive. They do not know if family members will share their degree of carefulness about community contact before a gathering or will honor promises to isolate for a period of time so they can be COVID-free at a family party. They feel angry and helpless. They tell me they are embarrassed about their weight gain over the last seven months and are feeling sluggish; they’re sleeping too late to exercise before they have to start work. They are feeling as if this will never end and they cannot keep up the effort of cautiousness.

We can restate the clients’ complaints above as a list of depressive symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Problems with making decisions
  • Pessimism
  • Feeling left out, ostracized, or in conflict with others
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Eating and/or sleeping too much
  • Fatigue

The more of these you may personally be feeling, the more likely you might be beginning to be depressed. The situation of the pandemic has created perfect conditions for situational depression. You are not going to inevitably become depressed, but it might help to recognize it so you can do something about it.

If you are going through this, you are not alone. I read and hear phrases creeping into everyday speech, such as “Pandemic Fatigue,” “PPE (Physical and Emotional Exhaustion) Fatigue,” “Mask Fatigue,” and “Quarantine Fatigue,” that suggest that we are all weary of being watchful, anxious, worried, and self-protective. We are tired from the attentiveness we must pay to how we do things that previously would not be given a second thought. But mostly we are tired of being separate from each other.

I am saddened that wearing masks and physically distancing ourselves has been politicized because the most protective thing we could have to prevent depression is the belief in the common good. “We are all in this together” is a sentiment that buffers the deprivations we feel. The political atmosphere of anger, resentment, and division fuels a fire that forges depression as it separates family members and friends from each other just when we need each other the most. It leads us to be suspicious of each other’s caution and increases separation.

Your attitude alone cannot change the political divisiveness, but if you shift your thinking from what you are suffering to why you are putting yourself through it, you will better tolerate the deprivations of less togetherness at the holidays, the sadness about missing out on events like baptisms, birthdays, bat mitzvahs, and other celebrations.

To decrease depressive feelings, try increasing your awareness of the “why” and increase your ability to stay altruistic.

  • Find those friends who share your view. Set up regular conversation time with them. Yes, I know this risks creating an echo chamber, but for the purpose of warding off depression, talking with people who support your cautiousness and understand this is temporary, this kind of echo chamber is worth the risk of missing out on other opinions.
  • Stay off social media for news. Get your news from trusted journalists and not from “opinionists” (my word for people who rant on social media and for many who have shows on cable news channels).
  • See if some of your trusted friends will self-isolate for two weeks so that you can get together safely for an event.
  • Write down all the reasons you are committed to cautiousness, especially those that reflect your values of caring for others. Read this often.

Then decrease the possibility of getting depressed.

  • Make a list of all the things you will do when you can be together freely. I know a group of teenage girls planning their first technology-free pajama party when they can be face-to-face instead of in video chats.
  • Make a list of everything that is still fun — games with friends online, riding a bike or working out, coffee at an outdoor café with a friend or a properly socially distanced restaurant, and commit a specific time for it. Put it in your calendar so you can see that some positives are still there.
  • Keep a list of things you have promised yourself to do — practice your musical instrument more, learn to meditate, read that really long, difficult book that has been on your shelf, take the online course (art appreciation, world history, star-gazing, origami for beginners or whatever once grabbed your interest.) Imagine life like the movie Groundhog Day (and go ahead and watch it!) and emulate Bill Murray’s character. Many of us started projects and hobbies at the beginning of the pandemic months ago, but when warm weather arrived and we could go outdoors, we did not continue them. Now it is time to think about these indoor activities again.
  • Get outside as much as possible, and if not outside, find ways to be physically active in your home every day.

If you can strengthen yourself to handle the next months of social deprivation, you will come through this with the certainty that you have done what is right — but hard to do — for the benefit of all around you.

About the author: Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and international trainer and speaker. Her upcoming book is Pandemic Anxiety: Surviving Stress, Fear, and Grief During Turbulent Times.

*Names changed for confidentiality.