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Groundhog Day: Getting Past Burnout in the Time of COVID

You wake up each day tired. Here are some tips to bring the sparkle back!

Alex Dimitriu / 123rf
Source: Alex Dimitriu / 123rf

Too many people have brought up the term "Groundhog Day," to not mention it formally. You wake up each day tired. The day ahead seems like a multi-stage triathlon. You want to stay in bed, and yet you cannot just fall back asleep. You just want to be left alone.

Every little thing seems like a big deal—even planning for a vacation. You are not really excited for the weekend. It's all a monotonous blur with maybe a brief silver lining as you sip from a glass of wine once the dishes are done. "Is this my life until I die?" you ask yourself.

This is becoming an all too common story. Exacerbated by COVID, but also a part of daily life for many people before the pandemic ever happened. Some will call this an existential crisis ... "What am I doing here? I can't wait to retire ... wait ... what am I wishing for?!"

No one likes the term depression, and it's okay—we can still avoid using that label here. It sounds scary. In my practice, I'm also a fan of not "overly pathologizing" stuff. Meaning, sometimes the fears that come with such a diagnosis can add stress at an already challenging time. And yet, it is important to call a spade, well, a spade. But let's call it burnout, as it might just as well be. "Phew," you think, and perhaps rightfully so, because things can and will get better, labels aside.

What are some common presentations I see of burnout?

  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities. Everything is blah. Weekends, vacations ... all, meh. Even sex ... becomes, blah.
  • A constant feeling of being tired. Coffee please. More coffee? "Maybe I didn't sleep well last night, but, I thought I did?" This can lead to significant procrastination, in all directions, people feel like they are "dragging ass all day."
  • Sick and tired. Beyond just tired, some may even feel a little sick. Many people really feel the term "sick and tired," describes what they feel. Headaches, muscle aches, back pain, and a general feeling of something being off with one's health. Beyond physical symptoms, some people can actually just feel "sick of it," tired of being tired, and plowing through the day.
  • Humdrum. Every day is almost a blurry repeat of the last. Time flies. And yet you are getting older. "Yikes. Where did all those months go?? What am I doing with my life?" Some may find themselves wishing time away, wishing to fast forward to some future time.
  • Buffered out. This happens when it already takes every ounce of willpower and energy just to get by. Then something happens, a change, another demand, a disagreement, and it puts you over the edge. Anxiety peaks, as you worry that you were already just barely squeaking by, "and now this!?" Watch for increased irritability towards yourself as well as others in your life.

So, what to do? Number one, speaking to that scary diagnosis that start with the letter D ... make sure you are still okay, and that the impact of your feelings on your life are not too drastic. Everything in psychiatry is measured against the level of impairment. If you can't sleep, can't work, or shower, or eat, get help. Suicidal thoughts should prompt the fastest help-seeking intervention. Note that there's also high functioning versions of depression, where people drag on, but with little joy or enthusiasm. Feeling significantly deflated for longer than two weeks, is another sign to get help. If you're worried about how your symptoms add up, do an internet search for "PHQ9 PDF," and take this short questionnaire to see if you should get help.

Things to try at home. Remember, that we are all animals, with basic biological needs. Take care of yourself!

  • Sleep—allow enough time for your body to get eight hours. Seven is okay. Six is not okay.
  • Diet—eat healthily; you are what you eat. Comfort food happens, but fish, for example, is especially good for the brain. Veggies and fruits help too. Microwave dinners, not so much.
  • Exercise—no one wants to go do it, but we all feel better after we do. Try to keep it intense—about 30-40 minutes, three to four times per week. You should need to shower after—it's a sign that you pushed it a bit.
  • Socialize—call a friend, go for a socially distant walk, or reconnect with family. It's okay to tell close people that you've been beaten down and feeling under the weather. You'll be surprised how not alone you are. Vulnerability takes courage, but creates connection, and helps everyone involved. Do it.
  • Play—don't get lazy and end up on the couch all the time. Get outside. Do something active. Do not go quietly into that dark night.

More globally, "fake it till you make it." It's too easy to get stuck in patterns that don't make us happy. Coronavirus has not helped by limiting so many possibilities. Push yourself. Do something different today. Start a hobby, call a friend, get out and run, clean the garage—just do something different than you did yesterday. It may be hard in the beginning, but like exercise, you will always feel better after.

Coronavirus will pass. The skills you learn now in getting yourself out of a rut, will last you a lifetime. Everyone's experience with burnout is different. Please take a minute and leave a line or two below telling us how you know you are getting burned out, and what has helped the most!

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