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Dealing with Burnout Caused by COVID-19’s Psychological Marathon

How to cope with a pandemic that feels like it will never end. 

By Jamie Aten, Ph.D. 

“Am I the only one that thought COVID-19 would be over by now?”

“When will COVID-19 be over?”

“Will life ever go back to how it was before the pandemic?”

If you are asking these sorts of questions during the pandemic know that you aren’t alone. One of the reasons COVID-19 has been so difficult to cope with is because it is more like a marathon than a sprint. If you are going to finish the race you are going to have to make sure there’s enough in the “tank” to reach the finish line. 

Because of COVID-19 life can feel like it is changing week-to-week, day-to-day, and even hour-to-hour. Even more challenging, there are times where it may feel like COVID-19 isn’t ever going to end. This rollercoaster experience can cause burnout if you aren’t careful, leaving you feeling depleted if you don’t take proper care of yourself. 

Burnout is commonly defined as the state of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion caused by a depletion of the ability to cope with your environment. It is the result of your responses to the ongoing demands and stressors of daily life, and it occurs when your perceived demands outweigh your perceived resources. Following are some steps you can take to help keep you from burning out. 

Recognize the signs of burnout

Recognizing burnout is vital because it can destroy your productivity, sap your energy, and (in extreme cases) lead to a total collapse. Burnout involves the depletion of physical and intellectual energy that happens when you are overworked, stressed, and involved in demanding situations over a long period of time. It leaves you feeling tired, rundown, overwhelmed, and irritable. Listen to your body and pay attention to what your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are trying to tell you. Emotional struggles associated with COVID-19 like stress, anxiety, and depression are common in this time of pandemic. Common signs of burnout include:

  • Chronic fatigue;
  • Low energy;
  • Poor or changing appetite;
  • Self-doubt or a sense of failure;
  • Constant self-doubt or questioning;
  • Sense of defeat and discouragement;
  • Procrastination or avoidance of responsibility;
  • Withdrawal or isolation of yourself from others;
  • Turning to excess food or drugs; and
  • Lack of discipline in your self-care habits, such as exercise, hygiene, or grooming.

Establish healthy routines and rhythms

Do your best to find ways to establish a healthy rhythm and routine to your ministry.  The more you can try and get back to what you were doing in life before COVID-19, the better. I recognize you can’t just go back to how things were. Rather I’m not suggesting you try and carve out some calm in the chaos. Try to build in some structure as best as you can to your day. Familiar faces, schedules, and mundane tasks, even if done virtually can go a long way in helping buffer against burnout. There is something soothing and healing in routine. Some ways you can work toward establishing healthy routines include:

  • Engage in meaningful leisure activities, including activities you have enjoyed in the past and new activities that get you out of a weekly pattern;
  • Be intentional in finding times to relax throughout the day;
  • Exercise regularly;
  • Prioritize sleep and practice good sleep habits (e.g., going to bed around the same time each night); and
  • Eat balanced meals each day. 

Seek social support

A common struggle I’ve heard from others during the pandemic is a tendency to withdraw socially because of the pressure they feel to “keep it all together.” Granted, during COVID-19 you need to be physically distancing, but it doesn’t mean you should isolate yourself relationally. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others for support. Be sure to take time out when you can to recharge by spending time with those you care about with those you are staying at home with or by reaching out virtually to trusted friends. Other examples of how you might cultivate greater social support include:

  • Be purposeful in maintaining and building meaningful relationships;
  • Tell others in your life what your goals are and enlist their support;
  • Stay involved in community life virtually using the technology and social networks you have available; 
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss and share things you are struggling with to others, they may be going through something similar; and
  • Talk to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, or neighbor.

Conclusion

If you have tried these strategies but continue to feel burned out, know when to get professional support. If your reactions worsen over time; or if they cause interference with daily behavior at work, at home, or with other relationships, it may be appropriate to talk to a professional. You can get professional help from a mental health provider or healthcare professional (e.g., primary care physician). 

Jamie Ate, Ph.D. is founder and co- director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and Blanchard Professor of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit jamieaten.com. He is also co-founder of National COVID-19 Day. 

This post was originally published on Hope + Resilience | Psychology Today and adapted with permission for use by National COVID-19 Day.

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