Even if you feel like you're doing nothing, your body and brain are dealing with a lot.

By Ashley Mateo
June 29, 2020
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Maybe you haven't finally learned French or mastered sourdough during the last three months of lockdown, but you'd think that with all your newfound free time you'd at least feel well-rested. Yet, there's this overwhelming physical fatigue (which, FYI, is different from quarantine fatigue, a mix of exhaustion and other feelings of unrest, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or irritability) that people feel as a result of "doing nothing" at home. Why, then, do so many of us feel downright exhausted?

Why You're So Tired RN

Here's the problem: You may feel like you're doing nothing, but your brain and body are actually working overtime to deal with an unprecedented situation. Right now, people are dealing with two major crises: the COVID-19 virus and the uprising against systemic racism.

"The fact that both of these are life and death situations—people who are susceptible to the virus are dying and Black people are dying amid social unrest—creates an overwhelming amount of stress for your body to deal with," says Eric Zillmer, Psy.D., professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University and licensed clinical psychologist.

The human body is typically well-equipped to deal with stress, thanks to the brain's fight or flight response. When your brain senses danger, it releases cortisol to prime your body for action and shut down nonessential functions. Your body can only withstand that state for so long, though. Normally, cortisol is an energy-promoting hormone, says Major Allison Brager, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with the U.S. Army who studies survival under extreme conditions. "But when you're in a prolonged state of high stress, your cortisol production gets so unbalanced that it flips the switch and you start experiencing fatigue and burnout," she explains.

There's lots of research that shows long-term exposure to stress can cause all kinds of health issues, from an increased risk of anxiety and depression and disrupted sleep to a weakened immune system and even heart disease.

Speaking of hormones, when you're stuck at home, you're missing out on the feel-good dopamine hits you get from socializing with other humans or doing things you love (like going to the gym, cuddling, or even being adventurous), says Brager. When dopamine is released in the brain, it makes you feel more alert and awake; if you're not getting that release, it's no wonder you feel lethargic.

Your brain isn't just dealing with haywire hormones, though. You know how when you pull up to a red light, you're bored out of your mind until the light changes? Just because you're not actively doing anything doesn't mean the car's engine stops running. Your brain is like the car engine, and, right now, it's not getting any kind of break.

"The first thing your brain does in any situation is try to make sense of it," says Zillmer. "But if you're operating from a place of uncertainty, it has to cognitively work harder to fill in the gaps." That's especially taxing right now because not only do you feel like you don't know what's going on, it likely feels like no one knows what's going on—or how to move forward. (Fun times!)

Working from home doesn't help either—not because you're not in your office, but because your typical routine is totally shot. "We've evolved to crave routine and even have an entire physiology system built around craving routine: the circadian timing system," says Brager. "When we adopt a strict schedule of when we work, eat, sleep, train, and "chill," our bodies latch on to this schedule and you often will physiologically and psychologically feel a strong energetic desire to do that activity." (See: How and Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Messing with Your Sleep)

The virtual nature of WFH can sap your energy, too. "One reason is that our bodies are deprived of the lack of direct emotional and psychological connection to humans while still having to attend to data and conversation," says Brager. "Also, we're often on video calls in rooms that aren't well-lit (thus reducing alertness) and lounging around versus standing or walking around." This unintentional laziness begets more lethargy, a vicious (exhausting) cycle.

"If there was just one thing wrong, we could fix it," adds Zillmer. But with multiple issues to deal with, all of which are layered and tangled (i.e. wanting to protest systemic racism but fearing exposure to coronavirus in the crowds), it becomes so complicated that it's hard for our brain to manage, he explains.

On an emotional level, this is all probably sending your anxiety into overdrive. "We're already at risk for anxiety as a nation because generalized anxiety is the most prevalent mental disorder in America," says Zillmer. And that anxiety is cumulative. Maybe it starts with a fear of getting sick...then there's the fear of losing your job...then there's the fear of not being able to pay your rent...and then there's the fear of having to move... You don't need a shrink to tell you that's going to be overwhelming," he says.

How to Restore Your Energy Levels

So what can you do about it? You might feel like the best answer to all of this is a nap. But too much sleep can actually make you feel more tired (and is linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as well as an increased risk of mortality.)

"Now that we're approaching three, four months, most people should be caught up on sleep," says Brager. You'd be better off forcing yourself to go outside or forcing yourself to do a workout—that's going to give you the dopamine release to drive your motivation, she explains.

The best thing you can do is take control instead of succumbing to the weird way quarantine seems to be warping our sense of time. Set a proper sleep/wake schedule, set boundaries with your colleagues, and take breaks from your screens every 20 to 30 minutes throughout the day, says Brager. (Related: This Sleep Disorder Is a Legit Medical Diagnosis for Being an Extreme Night Owl)

"The biggest hack is getting out in as bright, natural sunlight as possible," she adds. "Sunlight sends a direct reminder to our sleep/wake system in the brain that it is indeed daytime and we should be seizing the day—which is particularly helpful during bouts of sleep deprivation. This sunlight 'jolt' to the brain also stimulates the production of vitamin D, which is critical for optimizing our immune system and—especially in the face of today's pandemic—lung health."

And don't feel bad about giving your brain a break with straight-up pleasurable activities like binge-watching reality TV on Netflix or losing yourself in a romance novel. "There's a reason everyone's managing their stress by doing simple activities, like gardening, cooking, adopting a pet," says Zillmer. "It's comfort food for our brain."

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