Reducing the Risk of Emotional Fatigue During the Pandemic
Three factors that can overload our emotional system.
Posted April 8, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
The world is changing. The world is always changing. But this time, the change came unexpectedly, rapidly, and uninvited.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated our minds, our lives, and unfortunately for many of us our bodies as well. There is nowhere to hide, as every corner of our cities, states, and nations has been covered by the cloak of a disease whose weight is overbearing and its impact crushing on all aspects of life.
In a very short time, we had to make so many adjustments to our daily lives, some of which were self-imposed and many imposed by external demands. And as soon as we get used to one new way of living, we are pummeled by new restrictions, new adjustments, and new threats. Never before have our spirit, our stamina, and our resilience been tested to their limits to this extent.
And yet here we are. Mustering every ounce of strength we have to weather this Category 5 s***storm. We are managing to take care of ourselves, and take care of each other, in whatever way we can. We quarantine ourselves to protect our families, we avoid walking past each other on the street but only to keep each other safe, we use a fascinating array of improvised face masks when we step outside, and every evening at exactly 7 p.m. we open our windows and clap as loudly as we can, tears of gratitude gently flowing down our cheeks, to give our healthcare workers much-deserved applause of appreciation for risking their lives day after day.
Indeed, our emotional engine is on overdrive. Fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Fear of losing our jobs, our income, and our livelihood. And if we have already lost our jobs, then the fear is about how we are going to survive in a world with cruel financial demands and diminishing protections.
The uncertainty leads to anxiety. The social isolation leads to loneliness. The lack of recourse leads to helplessness. The curtailed freedom leads to frustration and anger. The losses we suffer lead to depression. And this tsunami of negative feelings, amplifying and intensifying each other, leads to extreme levels of emotional fatigue.
Is there a breaking point to our emotional engine?
Emotional fatigue results from experiencing a continuous stream of challenging emotions. In the words of neuroscientist Lisa Feldman-Barrett, emotions are our brain’s attempts to give meaning to our physical sensations in the context of the world around us.
In other words, our emotions are our reactions to events happening inside and outside our heads. And what dominates our consciousness currently is the duration and severity of the pandemic, which puts our bodies and minds on overdrive. Our brains give rise to intense, difficult emotions to make sense of the senseless situation we are in and to prepare us for battle.
This prolonged emotional toil is exhausting. And that’s why we need to give ourselves frequent breaks to rest and recover from emotional fatigue, the same way we would give our body a rest after strenuous physical activity.
Among the factors that contribute to the emotional fatigue ensuing the pandemic, there are three that are common and easy to reverse to give ourselves a needed respite: information overload, disrupted routines, and inattentional blindness.
Information overload: Tune out of the news
Your brain will eat whatever you feed it. The content of the information we consume or access from our memories is going to give our emotions shape. Our emotional state depends to a large extent on what we pay attention to, what we are thinking of, what we talk about, what actions we are carrying out. This means that when we tune into content that is negative, alarming, ominous, and upsetting, the feelings we experience will also be in that same range.
It is important to stay informed, especially with respect to what we need to do to protect our health and the health of the people in our community. However, information overload about the pandemic can lead to emotional smothering. Follow the news for as long as you need to be updated on what is going on and what you need to do. Then set a limit. Avoid the temptation to click on links for more statistics, more commentary, more opinions, more controversies, because you may end up down a rabbit hole that will overwhelm your system.
In fact, instead of getting more news, seek out information and content that is uplifting, joyful, and auspicious. Watch a comedy show, read a humorous book, listen to upbeat music, or share funny memes on social media. A comedic relief, in whichever way you like to add it to your day, is going to cool off your emotional engine and spare you from prolonged emotional fatigue.
Disrupted routines: Give your daily habits a makeover
We say that we are creatures of habit but you may not be aware that entire areas of our brains are dedicated to exactly this task: to routinize the way we do things. It takes some time to build new neural connections that enable us to carry out these routines, but once they are established, they are essentially autonomous.
Think of these routines as programs that are executed exactly the same way and they enable us to engage in myriads of activities throughout the day without much need for thinking and decision-making. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we execute hundreds of these routines seamlessly.
When circumstances change, the routines need to change too. If your normal commute to work, for example, is disrupted by roadwork, you have to quickly find a detour to reach your destination. Even this minor change in routine requires significant mental effort: devising alternative routes, estimating which one is the shortest, feeling frustrated with the county’s choice to have the roadwork done during peak hours, or feeling worried about being late for an important meeting.
Now imagine this change in circumstances happening on a large scale. Imagine a situation where the circumstances have changed across the board and now all your daily routines have been disrupted: from how you get the kids ready for school and how you get yourself to work, to where and how you do your grocery shopping, to how often you need to sanitize surfaces at home and how often you can visit and check in on your elderly parents.
This is exactly where we are now. Most of our routines are out of whack. And that puts enormous pressure on our brains to keep adjusting and readjusting, unlearning and relearning, holding back old habits and forming new habits.
This fervent mental reprogramming can wear us out mentally and emotionally. To reduce it, we need stability. We need to design and construct routines that can be fairly stable, sustainable, and unaffected by the continuous change in circumstances.
If you work from home, for example, establish new routines around your work hours: routines for working out, shopping for groceries, making dinner, spending quality time with your loved ones at home. Simply establishing these routines — and most importantly, sticking to them — will give you a sense of normalcy and stability, which will give your brain a break.
It may take a while to create new routines, and it may take patience, imagination, and a lot of negotiation, especially if you are not the only person at home who has to create new routines. A few good routines can lessen your emotional fatigue significantly.
Inattentional blindness: Take a break from living in your head
Inattentional blindness is a term that refers to the failure to see something as we are looking at it. It means that we miss something obvious in our field of view because our attention is locked into something else in our field of view.
For example, I could be in my car waiting for the traffic light to turn green and completely fail to notice the bluejay that just landed on my hood to rest, or even worse, fail to notice the ball that just rolled from the sidewalk onto the intersection; and along with the ball, I may also fail to notice the little person who will soon follow behind it.
Here is how inattentional blindness relates to emotional fatigue and how choosing what we pay attention to could alleviate it. I noticed that whenever I leave the house these days to reluctantly run an errand, what I pay attention to is how sparse and bleak the streets look, how dangerously less-than-6-feet-apart some people are standing to each other, how creepy it feels seeing all these faces hiding behind protective masks, and how reminiscent of photos from the Great Depression the long lines outside the local pharmacy are. My heart starts racing. My face feels flushed. And I notice myself walking faster and faster in a mild panic to seek shelter. The landscape feels apocalyptic.
It feels that way. But it doesn’t really look that way. Because when I shift my attention to other things around me, like the newly planted tulips, the impatiently budding trees, and the colorful palette painted on the sky by the twilight, I see an entirely different world.
This may be socially and economically the most devastating period many people have experienced. But take a look around you. Our physical world looks in many ways the same. Take some time out of your day and shift your attention to your physical surroundings. Notice how serene and unspoiled they remain and how good they still make you feel.
Outside, the trees are turning green, the flowers are blooming, and migrating birds are back, singing familiar tunes. Old buildings are showing off their durability and intricate architectural design and new buildings let the sun tickle their vitreous surfaces. Cars parked on the street are camouflaged by bird droppings. The streets are looking cleaner than ever.
And if you cannot go outside, your home remains your respite and the essence you infused it with is all around you. Notice how the sunlight reflects on the color you chose for your accent wall. Or how snug your sofa feels at the end of a long day. Or how refreshing the glass of iced water feels against your cheek. Or how long it has been since you listened to that R.E.M. song, the one you used to love to dance to in college…how does it go? Oh, yes! It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine.
It may be the end of the world as we know it, but we are strong and we will fight and in R.E.M.'s optimistic lyrics, we will feel fine.