Why You Might Be Experiencing Quarantine Fatigue — and How to Deal with It
A lot of us are tired now... but less "I had a long day," and more "a bones-deep ache I can't quite place." Yet it may feel odd to be so exhausted, despite being at home — typically, a place of rest — for months on end. And it might be paired with other feelings of unrest — depression, anxiety, loneliness, or irritability. Fun, right? Say hello to quarantine fatigue.
What Is Quarantine Fatigue?
"Quarantine fatigue is being absolutely done with the isolation, the lack of connection, lack of routine, and loss of the sense of freedom to go about life in some pre-quarantine way that feels unrestricted; it's being emotionally exhausted and depleted from experiencing the same day, every day," says Jennifer Musselman, L.M.F.T., psychotherapist, leadership consultant, and PhD-C at the USC Doctoral Program for Change Management and Leadership.
If that definition rings any bells for you, know you're not alone. In fact, thousands of Twitter users across the globe can relate to the feeling of "hitting the pandemic wall," a phrase coined by Tanzina Vega, the host of the radio program The Takeaway. In mid-January, Vega posted a now-viral tweet that sparked a conversation about "the burnout from working non stop, no break from news, childcare and isolation."
The SparkNotes summary of it all: People are pretty darn worn-out — if not entirely defeated — after a year of isolating, masking up, and putting their whole lives on pause indefinitely.
Unsurprisingly, these feelings of hopelessness, uncertainty, and burnout are totally valid. This phenomenon of quarantine fatigue is the result of all the emotional stress brought about by our current circumstances, says Forrest Talley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Folsom, CA. These stressors will vary from one person to another (whether it's working from home, dealing with financial stressors and unemployment, managing children without childcare and school, etc.), but "there are some universal sources of tension: increased social isolation, inability to engage in activities that had been meaningful or pleasurable in the past (going to the gym, socializing, attending concerts, visiting family, traveling)," he says.
And while your initial reactions to the rapidly-evolving COVID-19 situation may have felt more acutely stressful or anxiety-producing, after months, the never-ending-ness of this situation takes a slightly different toll — namely that the stress and anxiety have compounded over time.
"The protracted nature of the stressors culminates in the feelings of fatigue, which although similar to the initial stress and anxiety, is also different," says Talley. "Fatigue is usually accompanied by diminished performance, decreased energy, increased irritability, a diminution of creative problem solving, and, at times, a growing sense of hopelessness. The chronicity of the stress adds to the severity of anxiety, and can also change the qualitative nature of the anxiety as well."
"Think of your health like your phone: It has a limited amount of energy before it needs to recharge; humans are the same way," explains says Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Dallas. (In this metaphor, daily connection and activities are the energy source, rather than time spent at home.) "You can only live without your typical routines and connections to other people for so long. You start to act like your phone does when it's in low-battery mode." (Silver lining? Quarantine might have some potential mental health benefits, too.)
Quarantine Fatigue Symptoms
Quarantine fatigue manifests both emotionally and physically, says Gilliland. Experts cited all of these as potential symptoms of quarantine fatigue:
- Physical fatigue (ranging from mild to intense), loss of energy
- Irritability, irritating more easily; short temper
- Disturbed sleep, insomnia, or oversleeping
- Anxiety (new or aggravated)
- Sense of apathy, lethargy, lack of motivation
- Emotional lability/unstable emotions
- Feelings of intense loneliness and disconnection
- Feeling hopeless
- Onset of depression
Of the above, there's one to take particular note of: "Isolation is the most savage mental health symptom that humans suffer," says Gilliland, and it goes without saying, but we're dealing with a whole lot of isolation right now. (And, ICYMI, there was a loneliness epidemic in the U.S. before this whole thing even started.)
Why is this isolation so harmful? For starters, look at how human connection can feel sustaining and then consider how starved you feel without that. "Relationships are in our DNA — it should be one of the laws of nature (not sure how you get those approved)," says Gilliland. "Some of our longest studies on aging and physical health and mental health point to the same key factor for both; meaningful loving relationships are the key to a long life of physical health and psychological health. Other studies look at first responders or people who've been through a traumatic event, and those that do best are the ones with a good support system."
That's likely why "loneliness and social isolation studies find an increase in early mortality and poorer health," says Gilliland. (It can even make your cold symptoms feel worse.) "Other studies have talked about the effects of disrupted relationships (such as those during quarantine) and how it can lead to depression and increase alcohol use," which comes with its own host of health risks, including increased anxiety after drinking. (Here's one therapist's tips on how to manage loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
How It Might Show Up In Your Thoughts & Behaviors
There's a wide range of ways people respond to any type of fatigue, and quarantine fatigue is no different, says Talley. "Some will respond by dwelling on the limitations the quarantine has imposed, and brood on how 'unfair' it is, which may lead to a whole chain of thoughts about how unfair much of life has been." (Have you caught yourself in a brooding spiral? It's OK! We'll get to the fixes shortly.) "Others will get anxious because their 'go-to' coping strategies are disrupted by the limitations quarantine places on them, and as a result, they may turn to increased alcohol use, obsessive exercise, binge-watching television, etc."
All the experts agree that some behavior issues may include oversleeping, drinking in excess (more than usual), eating less or more (a change to your normal appetite and diet), withdrawing from those around you (even in a digital sense — not replying to texts, dodging calls), and an inability to focus on work or even leisurely activities. You may also have difficulty getting out of bed or getting "Zoom-ready," as a result of this overall hopeless, lethargic, apathetic feeling.
And that whole 'texting your ex' phenomenon? It's a thing. This experience may be spurring rumination, self-doubt, self-criticism, may have you questioning your life and life-choices you've made — which, in turn, may lead you to reach out to people you shouldn't, like old boyfriends or girlfriends, says Musselman.
Speaking of rumination, watch how you're talking to yourself right now, and be mindful of your inner dialogue — this stress may present itself in your thoughts, as well. "When you feel worn out for what seems like 'no reason,' you tend to talk to yourself in a negative way," says Gilliland. People tend to reinforce the negative feelings with thoughts like "I feel exhausted. I don't feel like doing anything. Nothing sounds good. I don't care what time it is, I'm going to bed," he says.
"Your thoughts and behavior are connected, which is why this fatigue and exhaustion increase your negative thinking," adds Gilliland. "When a negative spiral starts, it usually keeps going until you stop it. And then you mix in the legitimate uncertainty and worry, and you talk yourself out of things that are good for you — like meeting up with people for a run, a walk in the park, or just to sit on the patio and talk."
How It's Different from Brain Fog or Burnout
Talley noted that while quarantine fatigue may seem similar to brain fog, an easy way to differentiate the two is that brain fog is a symptom, and quarantine fatigue is more a collection of symptoms. Like burnout, he explained that this unique condition may impact one (or all three) of the following categories of symptoms:
- Cognitive. Examples include racing thoughts, irrational thinking, slowing of cognition.
- Physical/Behavioral. Examples include changes in appetite, reduced energy, gastrointestinal issues, changes in blood pressure.
- Emotional. Examples include the typical culprits of anxiety, depression, anger, melancholy, irritability.
"Within this framework, brain-fog falls into the cognitive symptom category," says Talley. And as for burnout, quarantine fatigue is a type of burnout, he says; a burnout with a different source than say, burnout from work. (Related: Burnout Was Named a Legitimate Medical Condition)
How to Deal with Quarantine Fatigue
You might not feel 100-percent better until you're out in the real world again — but it's tough to say when (and if) things will feel "normal" any time soon. Heres, experts share tips for tackling this specific type of mental, emotional, and physical challenge. The good news? It's possible to feel better. The tougher news? It's not going to be super easy.
Overcoming such a strong obstacle "requires marshaling one's inner resources," and will require a lot of leaning on your inner strengths, says Talley. It doesn't work to "passively wait it out and hope for the best," he says. Rather, it requires "actively pushing back against the stressors confronting you" in order to start feeling better. "I'm not suggesting this is the biggest challenge in the world, but it is nevertheless a time of testing."
Go back to basics, first. If you haven't covered these, it can serve you well to restore a healthy foundation, says Lori Whatley, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and author of Connected & Engaged. "Eat clean, hydrate, interact with family and friends on FaceTime, read uplifting books or listen to positive podcasts, says Whatley, noting that deliberately and actively redirecting your thoughts and behaviors can help you get back on track. Whatley also shared that simply getting more fresh air can help you improve more quickly. "Many people have found that improving the ventilation through opening windows and doors where possible has been a major mood lifter," she says.
Self-care and healing look different for everyone, and each person's remedy will vary. That said, there are some tried-and-true methods. "In the midst of a crisis, it's important to get the 'medicine' we know works for most people, most of the time — that means physical activity, regardless of how you feel," says Gilliland. (See: The Mental Health Benefits of Working Out)
"Try to just think about solving the problem; focus on the new situation and how you can achieve what you want," says Gilliland. "Don't look at what you were doing; that won't help, and may just lead to resentment and sadness, which is not helpful when you're trying to get going again. Instead, focus on today, what little thing can you do in your routine to walk a few steps more than you did yesterday. Great, now try to do a few more steps tomorrow and see where it goes."
Talk about it.
Talking has a surprisingly profound therapeutic effect. "When you put your thoughts into words you begin to see and solve problems in a different way," says Gilliland. "Talk with people or professionals about how you're struggling and feeling and ask them what they are doing to manage it. You might be surprised when and where you hear a good idea that helps just a little bit." (Related: This One Phrase You're Saying Is Making You More Negative)
Take breaks from your phone and news.
Not forever! You need it to FaceTime, anyway. But a tech break can be super useful. "It is helpful to limit digital device usage as well as our exposure to the news," said Whatley. Start to evaluate the impact of reading, watching, or talking about the distressing and uncertain events in our world. If you're struggling, start to limit that and start to focus on what you can do, even if it's the smallest thing. Moving and controlling little things in our life can have big results, says Gilliland.
Create a routine.
Chances are, you've been off your routine. "If you can find ways to structure your days to give them certainty, this is helpful for recalibrating," says Whatley. "For example, you can wake up and do yoga and mediation, have breakfast, then work for several hours, then go for a walk outside for 20 minutes to get fresh air, then work for a few more hours, then engage in a hobby or do chores around the house. Ending the day playing a game or watching an uplifting movie. Going to bed at a decent hour and getting up early is also helpful for our immune systems and moods."
Try a home makeover.
Whatley says this quarantine edition of a home refresh can help your mood. "You can redesign your outdoor or indoor living spaces to be more conducive to the pandemic limitations so that you can still enjoy these areas and enhance your feelings of wellbeing through living well in the space you're confined to," she says. Maybe it's time to get a fig tree or start an herb garden?
Be conscious of how you spend what energy you do have.
Remember that whole low-battery mode thing Gilliland was talking about? Be choosy with which 'apps' you run (really sticking to this metaphor). Gilliland said that even seemingly innocuous, low-energy activities can take more out of you than usual. Try to keep a mental (or actual) note of how you feel when spending a certain amount of time on something. Organizing cabinets can be a great coping mechanism, but how do you feel after an hour or two? Energized, or like someone unplugged your energy source?
"These things really drain the precious little resources [energy] that are left," he says. "That means that you have to be really careful about how stress has worn you out — you don't have the margin, the extra resources, to do some of the things that you used to do." Instead of taking on a huge to-do list, make a very short list of your top priorities for self-care and healing, and just focus on those so you can get back to feeling better. (Related: Journaling Is the Morning Practice I Could Never Give Up)
Try breathwork and meditation.
You've heard it a million times...but are you actually doing it? And sticking to it? "Master the practice of relaxation breathing," says Gilliland. "It's probably one of the most powerful things we can do to counter fatigue from chronic stress." Try these mindfulness techniques you can practice anywhere or these breathing techniques.
Find your purpose.
"Viktor Frankl, the legendary psychiatrist enslaved during the Nazi war, discovered that survivors of such horrific experiences were mostly those who could find purpose in their suffering," says Musselman. From this learning, Frankl developed Logotherapy, a specific type of therapy rooted in helping someone understand their own purpose to overcome mental challenges.
Building off that concept, "overcoming COVID-19 quarantine is finding the good in this time; using it as an opportunity to do or self-reflect on yourself and your life," says Musselman. "It's journaling and goal-setting. It's creating better habits, with yourself and in your relationship. It's looking within and discovering what's important to you and asking 'what life do I want now?'" (This is how you can use the quarantine to benefit your life and mental health.)
Talley expanded on these sentiments. "Think about what you've wanted to do but never had the time to do," he says. "Then ask yourself if it would be possible to pursue that desire during quarantine — that might be writing a short story, learning to make sushi at home, etc." (Enter: Quarantine hobby ideas.)
"Review your bucket list — if you don't have one, it's time to catch up," he says. "Make sure each item is prioritized; now go to the next step and put a date certain when you will have checked it off."
Getting serious with finding this new purpose is important. Feeling productive and purposeful can fuel your sense of happiness and help you heal.
Don't lose hope.
Try your best not to let this consume you. "The stress leading to quarantine fatigue is just one more opportunity to grow stronger," said Talley. "Once you begin to view it as an opportunity for growth, your outlook changes, and your emotions begin to shift. What had been an irritation, a nuisance, now becomes an unspoken dare to 'step up your game.' And the proper response to such a dare is 'Bring it on!'"