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The Dog Days of COVID-19: How to Fight "Quarantine Burnout"

Aug. 18, 2020 - Katie McCallum

I started to realize I was entering a less-than-ideal headspace during this pandemic when I stopped washing my hair every day.

I'll spare you the long, dramatic story. But what started with me washing my hair every other day on weekdays turned into a no-hair-washing bender that lasted all four days of my long birthday weekend spent on my couch. It took finally peeking in the mirror to officially decide something was up.

During a time when we're working from home, eating every meal at home, exercising at home, socializing from home — with no end in sight — life feels like it's flying by, but also somehow standing still. Some days, none of it feels particularly real, so asking myself, "What's the point of washing my hair every day?" just became another mini-existential crisis.

Basically, it took a few months of staying at home for me to get here, but my motivation to be a thriving 30-something-year-old is officially burning at both ends — and it feels like I'm burning out.

And I think it's pretty safe to assume that the same goes for a lot of other people right now, too.

Dr. William Orme, a psychologist and behavioral health expert at Houston Methodist, is here to help us understand why our current situation may be leading to a feeling of burnout, why it's important to recognize and acknowledge it, and the steps to take to face it.

Our warning signs may vary, but here's why many of us are struggling right now

Maybe your particular "not washing your hair every day" means not giving yourself time in the mornings to pick out an outfit you love anymore — throwing on the first thing you see instead. Or maybe it's not cooking dinner as often — turning to microwave meals more frequently than you'd like.

Whatever your warning sign is, a lot of us are struggling with the same issue right now:

"The COVID-19 pandemic may make you feel like you're just waiting — life on hold — feeling frustrated that there's no end in sight," says Dr. Orme. "This feeling of hopelessness wears you down, leading to a higher level of stress than you're accustomed to, for a longer period of time than you're accustomed to, without access to the usual coping mechanisms you're accustomed to."

Ultimately, Dr. Orme says that this prolonged stress can lead to something that looks and feels a lot like burnout, resulting in:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Uncharacteristic mood states
  • Disconnecting from others
  • Not enjoying things you know you love

 

Sound familiar? If it does, it's time to do something about it.

There's danger in doing nothing about our burnout

Skipping a hair wash here and there isn't new for me, just as dealing with stress isn't new for me either. But chronic stress and finding myself asking "What's the point?" day after day was new — and it may be new for you, too.

"The problem with doing nothing about these sorts of feelings and behaviors is that you can easily enter a self-perpetuating spiral where, as a means of self-preservation, you disengage to avoid the stressors altogether," says Dr. Orme. "In the process, you avoid doing things you know you should be doing."

In the short-term, these self-preservation techniques aren't necessarily a bad thing. But when stress is prolonged, they can easily become habits — and Dr. Orme says that's where the trouble begins.

"When we're habitually disengaged from the things that bring us satisfaction or meaning, we start to not feel great about ourselves," says Dr. Orme. "And since you still have all the same stressors to face, not feeling great about yourself makes dealing with stress even harder."

So while washing my hair every day may not sound like it should bring meaning to my life, the feeling of being put together every day does. Checking in on my friends even though there's nothing new to talk about does. Braving the Houston humidity to take my dog on a morning walk does. All of these were little things that I'd lost motivation for somewhere along the way during this pandemic.

I need help breaking out of this cycle, and you probably do, too. Thankfully, Dr. Orme has tips for helping us find meaning and satisfaction again.

How to fight quarantine burnout

It's hard, but the best thing we can do to fight our burnout is to face our stressors head on — rather than avoiding them.

Dr. Orme recommends the following tips:

Reframing what socializing looks like right now

Even as an introvert, I certainly can't deny the importance of socialization.

"We do our best when we feel embedded in a community," says Dr. Orme. "Finding ways to remain connected is important, even if they're not to the same degree."

Nothing can replace hanging out with your friends in person, but a video chat is better than not keeping in touch at all. If you don't like video chatting, make sure you're staying in touch via text message, email or phone calls. If you're an introvert like me struggling to adjust to these new methods of socialization, just remember that your extrovert friends need you right now — and your introvert friends do, too, even if they won't admit it.

Focusing on what you can do right now, not what you can't

Six months ago, I would've been thrilled to have extra time at home to delve into my random hobbies, or even just some guilt-free TV time since there's literally nothing else for me to be doing anyway. Four months into this pandemic, however, I'm finding myself comparing every second of free time I have at home right now to how I would've spent it before the pandemic. So much so that it's keeping me from enjoying the things I want to be doing.

"We can't discount the value of the things we still have access to just because they don't offer the same experience as before," explains Dr. Orme. "Appreciating what's in front of us is incredibly important right now."

It's hard, but I'm trying to stop focusing on what I can't do right now, like hang out at a restaurant with friends, so I can free myself up to fully enjoy the things I can do (and want to do!) — like cook pad thai from scratch for the first time.

Getting back to the basics

According to Dr. Orme, now's the time to make sure we're focusing on the simple things, like our nutrition, sleep, exercise and hygiene (I get it, I get it, I'm back to washing my hair every day now).

"Rather than fixating on the future and the things you can't control, make sure you're taking care of the little things you can control," says Dr. Orme. "These little accomplishments will help fulfill the sense of satisfaction and meaning you need to feel good about yourself."

In addition, a lot of these healthy, everyday behaviors help boost your mood — and a good mood will be an important ally in your fight against the stressors you're facing.

Concentrating on what life holds for you right now

Speaking of the future, a lot of us are probably dwelling in the "what-ifs" of our uncertain future way too much these days.

"It's easy to fixate on the future and start to catastrophize. We're all good at this," explains Dr. Orme. "But the skill to develop is to be able to shift your focus to what the day is bringing to you right now. This new mindset will help you face the actual tasks and stressors in front of you right now."

So while the dog days of COVID-19 aren't yet over, and, unfortunately, there's also no clear end in sight, hopefully Dr. Orme's advice will help you fight your burnout and find purpose in your life — even though there's still a pandemic between you and tomorrow.

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