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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

Pandemic Fatigue : Stuck in Survival Mode

We have been riding the waves of this pandemic for more than 8 months now. It is a long while already. It has become our life now, affecting us all in numerous ways.

Throughout this blog post we will explore the differences between the impressions and experiences we have shared in this time, putting emphasis on the concept of the profound feeling of exhaustion and fatigue you may have been experiencing, that seems to be quite unique and common among many during the pandemic.

Let’s start with a self-reflection question:

  • What differences do you notice between the first and second wave, in terms of how you have been feeling and experiencing this situation?

  • How have the emotional and psychological experience of the last 8 months evolved for you?

I’ll try to draw some conclusions based on my own personal experience, but also the collective experience of people around me.

The First Wave: The Shock of the Fall

When our life underwent the major change of the pandemic in March 2020, we were mostly in shock, but also frantically trying to adapt.

People were trying to do their best in order to respond to a completely new and challenging situation.

Some of the things that were going on back then were:

  • Panic buying

  • Overactivity of online social gatherings and events

  • Lots of home workouts

  • Discovering new hobbies and creative activities at home (i.e. puzzles, art, crafts, sewing etc)

  • “Fake it until you make it” attitude

  • Online work became the rule, rather than just the exception

Most people were experiencing an emotional rollercoaster, ranging from panic and extreme anxiety to gratitude and appreciation at times. The prevalent emotions/ responses to loss that were common to all of us were shock, anxiety, panic, overwhelm, but also disbelief, depression and hopelessness. People did not know yet what to expect, so a state of hyperarousal was common in many.

There was a collective effort to minimize the potential negative effects of the new situation and to focus our attention and efforts on discovering the possible silver linings.

For instance, many seemed to welcome the slow down, as well as the opportunity to spend more time at home, escaping the frantic rhythms of our previously fast-paced lifestyle.

Many people realized that how they were leading their lives before was not sustainable in the long run , and made a decision to apply some of the positive changes of the new situation even in the future after it’s over.

Life as we knew it was no more there. It was a sudden, unpredictable and very challenging situation for all of us. Most people suffered severe consequences in their financial, relational, occupational and emotional lives.

When we consider it in terms of grief and loss, as discussed in another blog post, we do realize our collective responses to the new situation were very adaptive.

We were all in survival mode. Despite all adversity, when faced with a new challenge, our nervous systems are wired to strive to survive and adapt.

After the initial shock of a stressful or traumatic experience, our brain strives to find ways to make it through.

Our nervous systems responses to threat are the well-known triad of Fight, Flight or Freeze.

The Pandemic took us all out of our Window of Tolerance

The Window of Tolerance concept below explains these 3 responses quite well. When we are in our Window of Tolerance, we are in optimal arousal; in our comfort zone where we feel calm, cool and connected, able to cope with environmental challenges and to self-regulate.

Any situation taking us out of this Window of Tolerance (like the new challenge of the pandemic) will activate one of the three responses. Our task is to find ways to return into our Window of Tolerance.

Neurologically speaking, both Fight and Flight are Hyperarousal responses. Freeze, on the other hand, is a Hypoarousal response.

Initially when faced with a challenge, the adaptive response is either to try and fight it, or to take active measures to escape and avoid possible negative consequences. The third option is emotional paralysis, freezing, helplessness and inability to take action.

Take a moment to consider how each of these three responses manifested in the first months of the pandemic. Each individual may have a different default coping mechanism, or a combination of all three responses.

  • Fight= Active Confrontation e.g. finding new active ways to cope

  • Flight = Passive Confrontation - Escape and Avoidance e.g. finding new passive ways to cope

  • Freeze = Numbness e.g. freezing, losing motivation, unable to act

The Second Wave: Comfortably Numb

We are all different, but also similar in the ways we cope with new challenges. In my view, there are several prominent differences throughout our collective experience.

The idea, hope and promise of March 2020 was that this would be over soon. But what soon actually meant was never directly explained to us, because there was no definite answer.

Or perhaps we wanted to protect ourselves from realizing nothing would be over soon- we were in denial. Some are still in denial, that manifests for example by believing in conspiracy theories, or still rejecting the idea that this virus exists, or that it is actually dangerous.

Denial is a stage of dealing with grief. It is probably helpful to remember that we are all globally grieving, while dealing with innumerable losses.

The pandemic can be considered a traumatic experience: a stressful and disturbing experience that changes life as we knew it.

One can observe all stages of grief interchanging- shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

We desperately want(ed) to believe that we don’t need to overdramatize the situation; it can’t be that bad, it’s not that bad.

Except it is. Except it is still not over, and not even the expert scientists seem to be able to give us a definite answer as to exactly when it will be over, and how the day after tomorrow will actually look like. For many, a terrible reality lingers- that our world and our lives will take a long time to return to what they were before.

Because indeed, it is not just an euphemism; we are living through something globally unprecedented and completely new. Staying mindful of this, as well as of the ways we each deal with it, will later help us in the concept of post-traumatic growth.

  • Now, would you say there are differences between how it was back then and how it is for you now?

  • How were you coping then, and how are you doing this now?

  • What has changed?

  • What has remained the same?

  • How do you feel, overall?

On The Bright Side…

Nowadays, most of us have found some ways to cope with this situation. The original hyperarousal and hyperactivity may not be there anymore. Intense anxiety, worry and panic have all subdued.

We all have found ways to adapt and adjust into this emergency situation and cope effectively (or less effectively).

You may notice it too- by now, you probably have figured out what works best for you, or maybe you’re still exploring, but not with the same intensity like in the beginning.

Many people have realized the importance of self-care, and are more conscious of the ways they look after themselves and their mental health.

By now, the phrase “shelter in place” has really materialized. This shelter means both navigating our relationships better, and learning how to create a comfort zone at home.

Relationships for many have become quite central, especially because of the social deprivation and loss of freedom to be outside, meet friends, and travel freely. Something beautiful I have realized is that many of us tend to our closest relationships with a new interest, care and affection.

It is essential to be able to have stability in the midst of instability and chaos, and this translates in finding ways to effectively deal with the ones closest to us at home, resolve conflict and appreciate their presence in our lives. In my opinion, interpersonal conflict may now be lower, because most of us really crave peace and security at home. I have also perceived others actively avoiding conflict and tough conversations at home, consciously willing to protect and guard the atmosphere of stability at home.

Another wonderful observation is that many people have a newfound appreciation for small joys, a new attention to details that make them smile. This makes sense, since our sources of positivity are now limited, so most of us strive to do our best with what we have available.

Most of us have found ways to cope well enough- we’re still learning to swim the waves of the pandemic. But swimming in turbulent waters for too long is draining…

On The Less Bright Side…

Many people are in a state of acceptance, but the truth is we all simply navigate a state of constant uncertainty. This is uncharted territory.

Even though we have found ways to cope, many of us simply feel awful: very low, unmotivated, burned out, lonely. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, are on a rise. People may do their best, but they are still struggling- a lot.

Except of all the specific and tangible losses we experience, the concept of ambiguous loss is now also relevant.

Ambiguous loss is any loss that is unclear and lacks resolution.

Right now we are grieving the loss of our lives before- there’s a common feeling of our lives being taken away from us. Though ambiguous loss brings about the grieving process, managing it is not as straightforward, and calls for constant creativity.

Yes, many people have adjusted to the “new normal”- but what if adjusting to the new normal means adjusting to indefinite uncertainty?

As far as I understand it, this is exactly what is going on. We are in a state of continuous anxiety and chronic stress. Many of us experience a strange mix of depression and anxiety that is just there, in the background constantly. Many of us realize we don’t really know when was the last time we felt truly joyful and happy. It is as if our emotions are numbed out- there are surely positive moments, but they feel more blunt.

Another prominent effect of this situation is a profound feeling of exhaustion: feeling tired, exhausted, drained – of this situation, mentally, even physically. Even if we have found ways to cope, for many of us this whole situation is extremely tiring and exhausting. An interesting description of this pandemic fatigue I read, is that it is a state of disinterested boredom.

You may find out that no matter how many self-care routines you are implementing or how much you rest, it just doesn’t feel enough to get you through the week. As if you crave self-care, but the positive effect of it does not last as long as it used to.

This is a whole new level of tiredness- this is pandemic fatigue. We are outright tired of this situation. If you also feel quite exhausted most of the time, no matter what you do or how you practice self-care, you’re not alone.

Another issue is that you may struggle with is concentration, motivation and procrastination. You may be doing your work, but does it flow as easily as it used to? How do you perceive your mental clarity and focus?

If I talk about myself transparently, I am well aware that I have not written any blog post in half a year. It was simply impossible- I had no inspiration but also no additional mental energy to put in thinking and writing. Everything else I had to deal with was enough- there was simply no excess energy to motivate me to write. Until today! And that’s perfectly ok, given the circumstances.

There are plenty of reasons for this low energy, difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation. Especially if you work online from home, keeping the boundaries between home and work life may seem much more difficult now. Many people may be close to a burnout. Online work is very taxing. Also, we are lacking our previous resources- like meeting people outside, travelling, going to public events, going out to have dinner and drinks carelessly- just living life care-free, in fact.

In a way it is like we’ve all become comfortably numb.

We’ve found a way to cope, but we swing between our comfort zone (our window of tolerance) and a state of hypoaroused numbness and exhaustion. Ups and downs, relentlessly and constantly.

Why Are We So Exhausted?

Like we established earlier on, during the early months of the pandemic we were on survival mode; our Fight or Flight response was activated.

We were operating out of our surge capacity, like Dr Ann Masten, psychologist with a focus on the role of resilience in coping through adversity and natural disasters, defines it.

Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.

But we can’t function in survival mode indefinitely; it is simply not sustainable in the long run. It is a mechanism that’s designed to get us through an emergency. In our case, this emergency has turned chronic, and we still don’t know when there’ll be an end to it. Thinking back to our lives before may feel like a century ago, if not completely surreal.

Like I read in a wonderful enlightening article, our surge capacity is depleted. Our brain struggles to process this much stress, but we are asking way too much from it; that’s why we may feel so wiped out.

The Window of Tolerance we discussed earlier helps a lot in this respect. The way I see it, we may be out of our Fight/Flight response now, but we are swinging between feeling comfortable in our Window of Tolerance, and sometimes going into Freeze mode (hypoarousal). And then back up again.

Why is Pandemic Fatigue Significant to Tackle ?

Working on our pandemic fatigue is not only important for our individual well-being.

Of course it is of uttermost significance to work on our individual ways of coping with pandemic fatigue, in order to reduce the potential adverse emotional effects of this challenge we are all faced with, and become more resilient and adaptive in the process.

But that's not the only reason.

Pandemic fatigue is collectively important, as well. Though it is completely understandable that we are all exhausted from constantly having to consider the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping in line with all measures and regulations, and feeling restricted in our freedom to live and interact with others, it is for our collective benefit to find effective ways to manage it.

The experts report that pandemic fatigue plays a central role in what we do to combat the transmission of the virus. The more pandemic fatigue there is, the more people are demotivated to follow recommended behaviours in order to protect themselves and others from the virus.

The guidelines may feel increasingly more as a challenge to follow. This would mean that the reported cases may take longer to reduce and the curve a longer time to be flattened, thus putting lots of our fellow humans in greater danger, and a lot of extra pressure on our almost exhausted healthcare systems globally.

Therefore this is indeed a time where our individual well-being is directly linked to our collective well-being.

How Do I Keep Coping?

  • Radical Acceptance

It doesn’t help to sugarcoat things right now- let’s start by accepting and recognizing the adversity and severity of the situation. Life has substantially changed, and it’s important to first accept that, in order to see how you can manage it and deal with it.

Radical Acceptance is defined as our willingness to accept things exactly as they are- not as we wish them to be. That can save us from a lot of heartache.

  • Remember that You Are Doing Well Enough Already and Reward your Personal Victories!

You are navigating a completely novel and stressful situation the best you can. Avoid harsh judgements of yourself. Given the circumstances, there are days that feel better than others.

Cultivate your reward system by cheering yourself on, even for your smallest of victories. Celebrate and reward yourself for goals that you accomplish, even if they seem insignificant or they took a while to come to fruition.

For me, a great victory is that this blog post in now finally published, even though it took me 6 months. Better later than never! 😊

  • Recognize the Stages of Grief and Feel your Emotions

Help yourself through the process of loss and grief.

It is completely normal that you may experience intense negative emotions sometimes.

Don’t run away from them- instead, allow yourself to feel them.

Yes, escape and avoidance (Flight) is surely an adaptive way of coping, but do not let it be your only way. Everything in moderation.

Experience your feelings, don’t suppress them, resist your urge to numb them. Ups and downs are part of the process; trust your own process! You can’t speed things up, the only way out of it is really through it.

Sit with your pain, process it, write about it ; journaling can be very healing.

And do not forget, this too shall pass, eventually.

  • Practice Self-Care Mindfully

Like discussed before, it may feel as if whatever self-care you implement is not enough. That’s just an indication you need more! You most definitely can’t have too much self-care right now, it will only benefit you to look after yourself and tend to your well-being.

After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup! Make sure to fill your cup regularly, as often as you need.

So many of our resources and options of self-care are currently restricted. We can either pine over this fact, or use it as an opportunity to discover (or re-discover) new fulfilling activities to soothe ourselves!

Self-care can take all shapes and sizes. Both a bubble bath and bingeing on an entire season of a series on Netflix can be extremely rewarding.

Stay in touch with yourself and your needs and frequently ask yourself the question:

What do I really need right now?

And do so mindfully, while being fully present.

Mindfulness is a great resource right now, despite the restrictions we all face. Explore the benefits of mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful reading, mindful movie-watching, mindful exercising, mindful showering. These simple activities now take on a new meaning and can be a great source of self-care.

Now is actually an amazing opportunity to escape our autopilot and start being truly Present in our lives.

  • Practice Self-Compassion and Manage Expectations of Yourself

Goals and sense of accomplishment are important, but this is not a time to overly push yourself. Build on your self-compassion instead.

Be gentle with yourself, and don’t stretch your boundaries. Life does that perfectly well for us all, at the moment. Allow yourself to feel low and respect your boundaries. Keep your goals SMART.

Like Dr Ann Masten says,

“we have to expect less of ourselves, and we have to replenish more”

  • Look after your Body

“A healthy mind in a healthy body” is a phrase that comes to us from Ancient Times.

In this situation of chronic stress, it is likely that you feel physically exhausted and depleted too. If you don’t look after your body, no one else can do it for you, and this becomes even more critical when you realize that chronic stress compromises our immune system as well.

The body keeps the score of anything that happens in your mind, and stress carries a very heavy load.

Do not neglect your physical needs. Sleep, eat, drink and exercise adequately and regularly. Make time for physical exercise and stay mindful of your body needs.

Focusing on your senses can bring you an immense sensation of grounding

  • Nurture your Relationships

It is very likely that you have also realized the significance of our social support systems and relationships.

If anything, this pandemic has made this truth absolutely prominent: what social beings we really are, how we miss social normality, how much we truly need each other.

Social support and social connectedness are amongst the most significant factors to cope with adversity and build resilience.

Like Erik Erikson said,

“Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn this, the better for all of us”.

So cherish your relationships, express your appreciation to the people close to you, help and support them, and don’t hesitate to reach out and seek support from others too.

We are all in this together.

  • Maintain Balance and Structure in your Schedule

It makes absolute sense that a way to combat global uncertainty and unpredictability, is to create some stability with your own schedule.

Keeping some basic structure will help you focus your attention in what you can control and increase your sense of control in your life.

Keep a stable waking-up, working, eating and going to sleep routine.

That will ground you in the Present and help you gain a sense of accomplishment and organization.

If you struggle with procrastination, keeping a Daily Activity Schedule and having a simple To-Do List can help a lot.

  • Practice Gratitude

The practice of gratitude and appreciation is another factor that helps build resilience. Being grateful for what you have now helps you gain control of your perspective. It also signifies that there is always a choice to be made on how we view our lives.

This does not mean that any adversities are minimized, but rather that there is still so much beauty and good around us if we pause and open our eyes to it.

A great suggestion is to start a simple Gratitude Journal. I promise you, if you start a gratitude practice such as this one, you may witness your whole life changing!

How to do this?

At the end of each day, note down at least one thing you appreciated or made you smile. Broaden your horizons: it doesn’t need to be something huge.

The current situation is an incredible opportunity to find joy and appreciation in small and simple things.

Maybe it was a delicious meal you had today, maybe something cute your pet did, maybe a tiny bird you observed in your garden, or perhaps your partner was particularly sweet and caring to you. Notice it , recognize it and give thanks.

Combining mindfulness with gratitude is a recipe that guarantees a newfound wisdom and a boost of happiness in your life. Try it out, start today!

In Conclusion

Even in the face of adversity, we grow and adapt constantly. Our adaptability and flexibility are cornerstones to our resilience. Focus on what helps foster your resilience, nurture your deepest needs, stay connected to others and show love to yourself every single day!

Remember, chronic stress is a risk factor for a weakened immune system. So do your best to relax and soothe yourself, even if you have neglected yourself or have been feeling unmotivated to apply positive changes.

You have survived 2020 so far, and it has been a wild ride that keeps unwinding. Realizing your own amazing capacities to adapt is one of the paradoxical gifts of this situation we are all in.

There's still quite a while to go. Hang in there, you are really exceptional for all that you have managed so far!

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