Post-Pandemic Exhaustion May Be Affecting You More Than You Realize

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After many months of lockdowns and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging in too many social activities too frequently may leave you feeling low. Here’s how to recognize the signs. Igor Alecsander/Getty Images
  • Now that a majority of lockdowns and restrictions have ended, many people are trying to catch up on social activities.
  • However, with the daily wear of increased stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging in too much social activity too quickly could leave you feeling exhausted, impacting your mental and physical health in negative ways.
  • Health experts say it’s vital to prioritize rest as you begin to interact with the world again more frequently.

After about 15 months of COVID-19 upending our day-to-day lives – from shelter-in-place and protective mask guidelines to isolation from family to financial stress and political upheavals – many of us may feel we are still in an uncertain place.

Some offices are reopening, the rise of vaccination rates means more people are returning to a semblance of “normal” pre-pandemic life, and the summer season means people are beginning to embrace social commitments with friends and family. All of this, of course, is taking place while the rise of the COVID-19 delta variant puts us in an uncertain, precarious place as a society.

What are the physical and psychological impacts as we return to our professional and social lives even though a pandemic still rages on? Medical experts say, in short, you’re likely feeling immense exhaustion.

Why many of us are feeling exhausted

“We’re seeing a lot more patients complaining about not being able to sleep well, having the ‘not having a lot of energy’ type of feeling,” said Stacy Boone-Vikingson, DC, CACCP, MBA, clinical lead at Northwestern Health Sciences University’s Bloomington, Minnesota, clinic.

Boone-Vikingson stressed that there is a clear difference between our pre- and post-COVID-19 worlds. Before, we used to regularly accept, even shrug off, a certain level of exhaustion, a deprioritization of personal health.

Now, people are recognizing they are not taking enough time for themselves and are more stressed than usual, where they might be worrying about pandemic-fueled economic instability.

“Not knowing from day to day what work is going to look like or schools will look like for their kids… that’s definitely been a switch up for them, having everybody at home all the time, and just having so many things going on in the home at one time where they can’t get that break they need,” she added regarding the changes that have brought on greater exhaustion for people.

Essentially, it’s been a strange time where our usual expectations of how life “should” be going have been upended completely. Now that people are going back out and seeing people they haven’t in over a year and partaking in activities (from barbecues to sporting events to family reunions) we are in a time when “people are definitely overscheduling themselves again,” Boone-Vikingson added.

She said that in the past, the summer season used to be one of rest and relaxation. Now, in a society opening up once again, people are barely taking time to catch a breath.

Dr. Ian H. Newmark, FACP,FCCP, chief in the division of pulmonary medicine at Syosset Hospital, told Healthline that “pandemic exhaustion” is so common now that it even has its own Wikipedia page.

“It has been defined as the state of being worn out by recommended precautions and restrictions related to the pandemic and is often manifested by boredom, depression, and other psychological issues including physical exhaustion,” Newmark explained. “Many people have dealt with this pandemic fatigue by abandoning necessary precautions, which is particularly risky in light of the renewed threat of the delta virus variant.”

Newmark echoed Boone-Vikingson that following a year defined by lockdowns and regulations, people are “trying to catch up on their social activities.” While in the short term it might feel energizing to catch up with friends and loved ones, they may be doing more harm than good.

They “may in fact be exhausting themselves in these efforts,” he said, adding the caveat that while tiring, it is “certainly helpful to engage in outside activities both from the physical and mental standpoint” after nearly a year and a half of relative seclusion.

The warning signs of post-pandemic exhaustion

Are there ways you can tell if you are experiencing an unusual level of exhaustion as you begin to interact more with the world?

Boone-Vikingson said you should always try to assess your energy levels. If you’re feeling particularly “low,” maybe take a rest, or just take a break from the activity you’re engaging in.

“If you just don’t have the energy [to carry out said activity], then that is a big warning sign,” she added. “Unfortunately, right now, it’s probably hard for people to recognize the difference of that activity’s impact versus being stressed out and having anxiety.”

Boone-Vikingson said anxiety and fatigue can certainly exist in tandem, and many of the clients she works with at the clinic have reported feeling anxious as well as exhausted in recent months. She said they often recommend people take a hot bath or take a walk. Try to find ways to re-energize and rest.

A big recommendation when people report being in a combined state of anxiety and exhaustion is to avoid sugars and caffeinated beverages — you might think of it as refueling but it can actually worsen your tiredness or feeling of anxiety.

“These almost do more harm than good because you just crash after the effects are gone. It’s just masking the issue,” she added.

Also, lay off coffee and soda if you’re feeling particularly affected by this current era we’re living through.

Tips for combating this exhaustion

Boone-Vikingson outlined several methods for fighting off exhaustion.

She recommended getting active. During a year of quarantines and lockdowns, many Americans spent more time sedentary and sitting passively in front of screens.

She suggested going for a walk or fitting in a quick workout. Also, yoga and meditation are other suggestions for managing stress and anxiety.

“Exercise, in particular, will help deal with the physical and psychological effects of the lockdown as well as social activities with individuals who have been vaccinated or in outside settings,” Newmark added. “Many people have found that the ability to eat in restaurants, outdoors in the warmer months has significantly helped their mental health and given them the feeling of a return to normalcy.”

Boone-Vikingson also pointed to nutritious eating, especially since many people opted for takeout delivered to their door during the height of the pandemic. She suggested that taking the time to cook a well-balanced meal increases the likelihood that you’ll embrace recipes with “higher quality and nutritious foods that our bodies need to stay well.”

Another crucial recommendation is hydration. Boone-Vikingson said that drinking plenty of water daily is crucial to keeping our bodies performing at their best. Lack of hydration can seriously impair your mind and other organs’ abilities to function optimally.

Boone-Vikingson’s final tip was prioritizing rest, which is taking time for yourself each day, especially now that we are socializing again with friends and loved ones.

You might just want to find some needed “me time” to “rejuvenate,” she added. This also includes avoiding screen time about 30 minutes before bedtime, embracing a consistent sleep routine, and limiting caffeine, alcohol, and sugar consumption.

In our fast-paced lives, all of this is easier said than done. Boone-Vikingson said she is a big proponent of actively scheduling some of these healthy behaviors into your daily routines.

Whether it’s always remembering to carry a water bottle that you can refill throughout the day or fitting in time for a workout, practicing these behaviors is key to short-term and long-term good health.

She also noted that mornings are often the best time to do this.

One big problem for a lot of Americans, however, is rest.

“Naps throughout the day is always a challenge. In the U.S., naps are not a thing. In Spain, they take their hourlong break, everyone does take a siesta there. Our culture doesn’t necessarily support the nap or things like that,” Boone-Vikingson added. “My recommendation is to focus on having that downtime prior to going to bed and trying to get 7 hours of sleep minimum for adults.”

Easing into a post-pandemic world

Newmark said one crucial aspect of adjusting to our constantly shifting COVID-19-era norms is being realistic about the fact that things might change. You have to be ready to adjust as more information about the coronavirus becomes available.

“People must be aware that special precautions may need to be taken in the indefinite future. As the first show opened in the theater district in New York, ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ required proof of vaccination prior to entry,” he cited as an example that we might have to accept and learn to live with changing norms in the pandemic’s wake.

Newmark also stressed that the sense of exhaustion and elevated anxiety many of us have experienced during COVID-19 might not go away soon. This is why practicing Boone-Vikingson’s recommendations, from rest to exercise to hydration, are key.

“Although many people were initially relieved at reduced restrictions and the reopening of businesses and restaurants, there is now a sense of depression in many individuals concerning the significant increase in COVID cases primarily in the unvaccinated,” Newmark said. “There was also fear that despite vaccination, individuals may be prone to catch the newer strains of virus.”

He said this led to a rise of unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as higher levels of alcohol and drug use.

“Anxiety, sadness, depression, and fatigue are the biggest impacts we have seen on mental health during the pandemic, and as people emerged from the lockdown, hopefully, we will see this dissipate,” he said.

Newmark added that it might be important to ease into old pre-pandemic activities.

For people who haven’t been exercising much during the lockdown, it’s recommended they slowly return to cardiovascular exercise, for example. Similarly, incorporating healthier, more nutritious eating habits can help improve sleep and help people shed some of those pandemic-fueled pounds.

At the end of the day, one of the biggest ways to feel better during this time of societal reopening is to engage with those you’ve missed the most. Just be sure to give yourself some needed breaks in between.

“Seeing friends and family who have been vaccinated will also certainly help the mental health of individuals who have been sheltering in place,” Newmark said.

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