Crisis Fatigue photo-illo

As the pandemic continues, more and more people are feeling the effects of crisis fatigue. 

There’s a name for that gnawing feeling in the back of your mind, for the growing blob of apathy that makes you want to throw your hands up, quit caring about the stress of 2020 and just go back to business as usual, not worrying about masks or social distancing.

It’s called crisis fatigue, and it’s totally normal.

Defining crisis mode

Sara McMullin is a postdoctoral research fellow at MU. She has her doctorate in experimental psychology and is studying the impact of stress on decision-making and addiction. She defines crisis fatigue as the psychological result of chronic stress. It’s what happens when stressful experiences pile up and don’t go away.

Mind and body

When you experience a stressful situation, your body has a physical response, says MU Health Care psychiatrist Laine Young-Walker. It increases adrenaline and cortisol, powerful hormones that increase heart rate and air flow and redistribute blood to your muscles, to give you the boost you need to get away from a stressor.

Once you’ve escaped, your body begins to relax and go back to normal. When the stressor is unavoidable and longstanding, however, this relaxation can’t occur. This is where crisis fatigue and its side effects begin to show.

Handling that feeling takes a lot of what licensed professional counselor Andrew Taegel calls “psychological labor,” or the work you put in to process difficult emotions or situations.

Similar to physical labor, you can overexert yourself mentally and need to take a break just like you would after a strenuous workout.

Without mental reprieve, your body will experience constant turmoil. Chronic stress is linked with an increase in migraines, back pain and stomachaches, according to the American Psychological Association. Young-Walker says it can also lead to an increase in anxiety, depression and emotional instability.

What crisis fatigue feels like

Taegel compares the situation to driving a car: Your first time behind the wheel, you’re hyperaware of everything that could go wrong. It’s stressful at first, but it becomes a breeze after you’ve been driving for years. However, when you’re repeatedly exposed to new situations, as has been the case in 2020, it’s like you can never get comfortable behind the wheel.

“It’s like we’re driving for the first time over and over again this year,” Taegel says.

Self-care strategies

A key part of recognizing and overcoming crisis fatigue is knowing when and how to take mental breaks.

Taegel and McMullin both recommend mood tracking to practice mindfulness. Keeping track of what you’re feeling and when, whether through a journal or an app like Moodily, can help keep you grounded in the present instead of stuck in the past or fearing an indeterminable future.

McMullin emphasizes the importance of checking in with others, even if only virtually, to mitigate the effects of isolation. McMullin says social support is “almost always a very strong buffer for the effects of stress.” #JustCheckingIn, a campaign launched in March, has a list of 10 questions you can ask friends and colleagues to check in.

Other recommendations include limiting screen time, picking up a new hobby, maintaining a consistent schedule, and seeking out counseling when needed. People react differently to stress, McMullin says, so you might need to try multiple approaches to figure out what works best for you.

“Try to make sure you are engaging with things that are positive and uplifting for you,” Young-Walker says. “Give yourself time just to be in the moment of dealing with what’s going on despite the fact that you can’t change it.” 

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