What Is Pandemic Burnout and What Can You Do?

woman in mask staring longingly out her window

Pandemic Burnout

My kids are two and four. I’ve spent the majority of the last 4 years keeping them from putting things in their mouth that will kill them.

Incidentally, I work from home with only part-time daycare BP (Before Pandemic). When Coronavirus and the lockdown came, I assumed that – apart from an invisible and potentially lethal threat shadowing our lives – this new development wouldn’t be much different from our ordinary day-to-day.

I would still be running around, constantly at the edge of panic, trying to keep the kids from inadvertently killing themselves or someone else, doing the grocery shopping without them licking the floor or pulling down a display, finding ways to keep them busy so I could work. While I “cleaned” the house my two-year-old would flood the bathroom. While grandma did video call storytime for my four-year-old, I’d make my business calls and pray that she didn’t break my work computer. My husband and I would trade free/fun time with each other, and me and the kids would spend a lot of time building forts, looking at crickets under rocks and making sandpiles, sand soup, sand pie, sand footprints.

Life would be just like it always was. And it kind of was.

What I didn’t count on was the exhaustion. The psychological burden of trying to appear normal, happy, matter-of-fact while inside you’re a swirling mess of apprehension. When you become a parent, your brain undergoes documented changes. Because “parenting involves protecting children from various risks and dangers,” one of the many changes is called “parental vigilance,” in psychological lingo. 1

Parental vigilance is primal and instinctual. And it’s usually a good thing. It’s what has kept helpless little human babies alive over thousands of years of evolution when mom and dad really would’ve been having more fun drinking fermented coconut juice than fighting off saber-toothed tigers. But it can also lead to parental burnout.

Parental vigilance is primal and instinctual. And it’s usually a good thing. It’s what has kept helpless little human babies alive over thousands of years of evolution when mom and dad really would’ve been having more fun drinking fermented coconut juice than fighting off saber-toothed tigers. But it can also lead to parental burnout, a condition “characterized by an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness.”2

But that was before the pandemic. Before I became responsible for my kids’ “remote learning,” working without childcare, preventing virus transmission and trying to financially support causes and businesses when we’re struggling ourselves. I bought yoga memberships that I couldn’t use because both kids dangled from my neck in downward dog. I learned more vegetarian recipes when the price of meat skyrocketed. I bit my tongue on my screams when my kids used toilet paper like streamers in the height of a toilet paper shortage. And I took on responsibility for the health of every person I interacted with.

Every decision became both morally significant and physically vital, and I was exhausted. I felt like I was making God-level decisions without the omnipotence or omniscience of God.

I was already hypervigilant to safety, but now my mind was like a video game display of potential threats. Analyzing my distance from every stranger, keeping a mental catalog of every object I touch. Who are we putting at risk? Is it worth the risk? Grandma really wants to see us for Mother’s Day and thinks this is just a flu. Do I let her pressure us or stand strong and look like a bitch daughter? Oh, and watch out for traffic crossing the street, eat your veggies and put on sunscreen. How long can we operate without my income? What about the medical procedures we’ve got coming up? Does my mom, who is internet illiterate, follow the public health guidelines, or need help doing a video call?

Every decision became both morally significant and physically vital, and I was exhausted. I felt like I was making God-level decisions without the omnipotence or omniscience of God.

What Is Burnout – Pandemic, Parental or Otherwise?

According to psychiatrist Dimitrios Tsatiris, burnout is “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.” Sound familiar?

Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Feelings of detachment or apathy
  • A high level of dissatisfaction
  • A reduced sense accomplishment 
  • Reduced performance at work or home
  • Emotional exhaustion 
  • Increased levels of irritability3

How to Deal with Pandemic Burnout

The advice from Dr. Tsatris – and other experts – for counteracting pandemic burnout are not drastic or unobtainable lifestyle changes. They include some commonsense mental health strategies like:

Express your feelings. Now is not the time to shoulder the burdens of the world in silence. Reach out to your support network – spouse, friends, family – and let yourself be human.

Establish and follow a daily schedule. Not only will this help you cope, it’ll help young children adapt and feel secure. No staying up late, eating frozen pizza and watching movies then sleeping til noon – unless it’s a special occasion.

Practice self care. Exercise, meditate, paint a picture, soak in a bath, bake something delicious. Self care can be anything that nourishes you and “recharges your batteries.”

Don’t isolate. This is particularly important in a global crisis that requires us to physically separate from each other. On the flip side of the coin, there have never been more technological tools available to connect virtual. Phone, text, email. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Zoom, FaceBook video call, Skype. The options are endless! Reach out with the tool(s) of your choice – and remember you’re helping the person on the other end of the phone as much as you’re helping yourself.

Don’t be afraid to get professional help. Online counseling, telemedicine with your physician and online support groups have exploded. They’re even more convenient for fitting into your schedule and not having to drive to appointments. Addiction recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have moved meetings online – and you can “attend” meetings in any part of the world at any time of day!

Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the nature of being fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing. While it’s an ability we all possess, it’s a deliberate choice and gets better with practice. The benefits of mindfulness are: calming anxiety, greater clarity of thinking and improved interpersonal interactions. For more on mindfulness, read our next blog.

“Out of life’s school of war—what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

Nietzsche

The pandemic isn’t going away and has served up a giant dose of insecurity, fear, stress and greater demands. It may or may not help you feel better to know that everyone in the world is feeling the impact, to a greater or lesser degree. But what is comforting is knowing that what matters the most – isn’t the crisis itself – but how we deal with it. Be gentle with yourself and your expectations, but recognize this is an opportunity to learn and grow in ways we never even imagined.