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Commentary: Pandemic Burnout

I don’t know about you all, but I am beyond exhausted.  This isn't pandemic fatigue, but full on pandemic burn out.  Pandemic fatigue is being tired of wearing my mask.  Pandemic burnout is not being able to envision ever not wearing my mask.  I had hoped that by the beginning of 2021 we would have had COVID somewhat under control.  But, the new B.1.1.7 strain of the virus appears to be more contagious and at this point is moving faster than our ability to distribute vaccines.  

Couple this with the ambiguity about when vaccines will become widely available and what spring will look like is really unclear.  Factor just a few more transitions like the death of my last living parent, sending our girls off to campus and beginning our journey as empty-nesters, and honestly missing social interactions with friends and acquaintances - and viola, I am burned out.  I often find it hard to think straight.  Even though I am exhausted I can’t sleep.  Everything hurts and like many people, I am concerned about the state of the world.  But you know what?  It’s ok not to be ok right now and I think we all need to accept that.  Because this is a lot.  I mean A LOT.  

Hopeless as it may sound, there are a couple of things we can do as individuals to fend off burn out and feel better.  Here are my top three.

1 – Be of service to others.  Last semester I was teaching live zoom courses on Thursdays, which interfered with volunteering for Genesis Garden.  The girls and I had been helping deliver food to households in McDonough and the surrounding counties when COVID first closed down the food pantries in Macomb and we were able to do so through the end of summer.  As we all sat in front of our computers to attend classes during the fall and early winter months, the joy we felt being of service to others was clearly missing from our lives.  Dr. Steven Southwick, a professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School writes that maintaining relationships – in whatever form they take – is essential right now.  “The fundamental need to belong is hardwired into our nervous system.  In fact, from a neurobiological standpoint, exclusion, rejection or isolation can activate the sympathetic [fight or flight] nervous system just like any fear response.  Adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, all of these stress hormones can get activated purely by social isolation.”  Recognizing this during the fall, I made sure that my class schedule this semester allows me to volunteer again.  I am looking forward to the rush of oxytocin that comes from doing something small for someone else.

2 – Move your body.  I am appalled by what has happened to my physical fitness level over the last year.  My weekly routine of Pilates, yoga and running with friends came to a complete halt when summer turned into fall and it was more difficult to gather outdoors.  While I know that gyms are open, I am not willing to risk my health or the health of others until I can be vaccinated. This makes staying motivated to stay fit a challenge.  I know myself too well.  Part of the reason I teach yoga and Pilates is so that I am forced to show up and exercise.  That and I truly adore the group of people who gather together weekly.  It is more than just exercise, together we have formed a sense of community that I miss immensely.  I know that getting back into shape is going to be hard.  Even more so now than ever before.  So, in addition to volunteering weekly, I have committed to walking several times a week with a friend who will help keep me accountable.  We are going to start slowly and work our way up to spending more time out of doors.  Unlike many people, I like winter, as being outside in the cold is when I feel most alive.

3 – Take a Moment.  I have long been a fan of mindfulness and meditation exercises.  But meditating can be hard and uncomfortable.  Fortunately, you don’t have to go at it for hours on end to experience the benefits.  Those mini-computers we all carry around with us as phones have lots of meditation and mindfulness apps.  And then there are practices that you don’t even have to pay for.  One of my recent favorites is the creation of a Canadian First Nations man named Andrew Bird.  On virtually any social media platform – I found him on TikTok – Andrew Bird posts short meditations that help so many people find a bit of calm.   He is one of those truly inspirational people who despite almost insurmountable obstacles has found happiness in life.  At the age of 14 he was homeless and yet he became the first indigenous Elite Canadian Championship Wrestling Champion.  He also has two motivational talks on the Tedx platform.  His short meditations encourage us to “drop your shoulders, loosen your stomach, relax your eyebrows and drop the tongue from the roof of your mouth just for now.  In this moment, as we sit here right now, everything is ok. We have the time and ability to sit in safety where nothing is happening.  And that is something to be truly grateful for.”

We may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I know it is there.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.