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Burnout

Covid Related Decision Fatigue, Hypervigilance, and Burnout

Prolonged distress comes with a cost. Understanding what’s happening can help.

Key points

  • Omicron is hitting when our psychological reserves are low.
  • Decision fatigue, hypervigilance, and burnout are real at this point in the pandemic.
  • Understanding how these states of being impact us can help us weather them.
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels
Source: Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

With its wild transmissibility, Omicron has hit at a remarkably horrible time. On the heels of a “false start summer” and the increase of hospitalizations and deaths related to the Delta variant, we face this new chapter of the pandemic depleted and emotionally dysregulated.

Naming and addressing some of the challenges we face can help us weather this variant with greater psychological resilience. The following is offered toward this end.

Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue sets in when the number of choices in a day outweighs the brainpower we have to make them. The pandemic has added myriads of decisions to everyone’s lives. Whether these have been major (e.g., Do I stay in a secure job but cost my well being? Do I cancel the nonrefundable trip I’ve been planning/saving for years?) or relatively minor (e.g., Should I go to the outing or not?), they have been constant.

We’ve been forced to make them from a place of exhaustion. The kind of brain fog inherent to this pandemic-related tiredness can intensify these symptoms of fatigue.

Impulsivity, procrastination, avoidance, and indecision are all symptoms of decision fatigue, and each comes with its own cost to our mental and physical health. When we procrastinate or avoid/resist making decisions, we carry additional psychological weight with us through our days, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. When we make choices impulsively, we risk making decisions that haven’t been fully considered and paying the price down the road.

To relieve some of the psychological weight of decision fatigue, reduce the choices to be made in a day and work to make most of them in the morning. Planning what you will wear and eat and how you’ll manage your schedule for the day, and sticking with the plan, will leave more brainpower for the bigger decisions.

Additionally, as much as you can, determine your guidelines for navigating this chapter of the pandemic so that you don’t have to make multiple decisions every day. For instance, rather than weighing each social or work invitation individually, consider deciding what you will and won’t do in broad strokes and communicate those choices to others upfront. For example, “I’m letting everyone in my life know that I’m choosing to steer clear of group events for now. In small gatherings, I’ll be masking and asking ahead of time about the vaccination status of others.”

Determine your boundaries and set a time to re-evaluate them a few days out.

Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance refers to a state of being that includes a heightened alertness to everything going on either in or outside. When we are in this state, we feel as though we are at risk and perceive both real and imagined threats as looming large, which triggers our central nervous system to go into fight, flight, freeze, or faint mode.

If we stay in this emotional space for prolonged periods, we begin to face very real physiological consequences that include anxiety, panic, depression, and paranoia.

The pandemic has created a need for hypervigilance around safety for the physical well-being of ourselves and our communities and the threat of transmitting, or being diagnosed with, a life-threatening illness. It’s also created a tendency to be hyper-aware of even benign message indicators in our bodies as we try to evaluate if we may have contracted the virus. While these things are based on genuine concerns, remaining hypervigilant at all times can cause emotional dysregulation at levels that can hurt us.

To relieve the agitation, anxiety, numbness, sped-up, and/or paralyzed feelings that hypervigilance brings with it, it’s crucial that we commit to consistent periods wherein we can let our minds and bodies experience the relative ease of safety. To do this, schedule times away from all media (including social media). Find moments of relaxation or entertainment that give you breaks from your fears. Practice mindfulness consistently.

To do this, identify a space in your home where you can fully relax. This might be a room or a closet, a chair, or a bathtub. The goal is to find a place where you can feel safe. Let the full weight of your body rest in this space, and commit to doing so for at least ten minutes.

Practice imagining that your body is a boat dock and that the worries and threats that you face are boats that are floating far out and away from the dock. When a worry or threat comes to mind, put it on a boat. Communicate with the boat that there’s no space for it to tether to the dock right now but that it can float back by later.

Watch it float by, knowing that if it is important, it will return. Redirect your attention to your body, encouraging it to melt and release all tension just for this short time. Focus on making your body warm and heavy and on breathing deeply.

Keep placing distractions on the boats and let them float away, bringing your attention back to being a heavy, warm, calm presence. Commit to a daily time to offer your body this comfort.

Burnout

The pandemic has been stressful for everyone. For some, however, burnout better describes their current state of being. When we are stressed, we feel like there’s too much to do, but we have a sense that we’ll feel better when it’s done, or the situation passes. With stress, our emotions are overactive.

Burnout is different. We feel a deep sense of not enough when we are burned out, and our emotions are blunted. We lose interest and motivation and often feel incapable of, or disinterested in, meeting life’s demands. Physically we may feel weak. We might sleep too much or too little.

Relationally we feel isolated and/or insecure. Behaviorally we may find ourselves using substances or food to cope. We might procrastinate or withdraw from responsibilities. Emotionally we feel defeated, unmotivated, and cynical.

Whereas with stress, our bodies often pay a price, burnout takes us out emotionally and makes life feel impossible. For this reason, it is crucial to take the signs of burnout seriously. To do this, acquaint yourself with the symptoms of burnout (this is a great resource).

Work to identify your three core values (here’s a values list to help), then assess to identify how your work and life bring you closer to, or further from, living according to them. Enlist the support of a friend, therapist, or faith guide to help you identify changes that you can make to relieve you of unnecessary suffering and move you closer to a fulfilling life.

Get serious about self-care and investigate mindfulness practices that help attach you to moments of rest, agency, and joy. Pursue help from a licensed mental health professional (including those that can prescribe medication or specific treatments like EMDR) if your burnout is advanced or unmanageable. You need not suffer alone, and there are effective treatments to help.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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