Overcoming COVID fatigue

By Tamara Cagney, Licensed mental health counselor

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Stay focused and creative in the midst of the pandemic

person in mask looks out window
COGNITIVE OVERLOAD — After more than eight months of isolation and frequent disruptions to daily routines, many people are experiencing COVID fatigue, but Sandians are finding ways to adapt and continue their critical national security work.

Sandians are proving to be adaptable and flexible as they pivot in response to near-daily changes. After more than eight months of isolating, social distancing, being careful and being scared, there is a new name for what we all are experiencing — COVID fatigue.

The continuing pandemic has led to a double challenge: ongoing daily stress from virus-caused disruption and prolonged uncertainty about how long it will last.

How we choose to react will impact our personal health, our mission at Sandia and the timing of the virus’s eventual defeat.

Prolonged attack on cognitive resources

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. As cases continue to rise sharply throughout the nation, COVID fatigue may lead some people toward carelessness. Even so, we can still help ourselves, our families and others.

Knowing why we feel like everything is abnormal can help us feel normal. As the continued difficulties and ongoing stress of being in a pandemic build, it’s easy to lose optimism and start having negative — or even angry — reactions.

Any period of uncertainty, challenge or crisis can overload the human brain. Even in the best of times, our workplaces and homes are filled with stressors that can push our emotional buttons and exhaust our cognitive abilities. These stressors are interpreted by our brains as threats.

When combined with a period of prolonged crisis, these threats can be overwhelming, both emotionally and physically. A large part of our cognitive capacities is required to monitor and manage the perceived threats. Having our awareness and threat levels on constant mid-alert — even when we’re seemingly at rest — significantly impairs our capacity for everything else. And maintaining that mid-alert level presents a fatiguing challenge with a cumulative impact over time.

So, what can we do to better manage our cognitive resources and stay focused and productive? Here are seven brain-friendly approaches that might help.

1. Respect your new cognitive-capacity baseline.

We can only do so much. Our brains can only do so much, and the limits of our “thinking brains” are more pronounced in times like this.

Have you recalibrated your workload to account for these limits? Have you done the same for your team? Have you adjusted your expectations at home, especially if your children are experiencing distance learning?

Be radically realistic. Take a fresh look at what you’re asking yourself and those around you to do and by when. Relax these demands wherever you can.

2. Know your limits and don’t limit your noes.

You’ve recalibrated your workload and priorities to better suit your current cognitive capacities. Now promote certainty and choices by pushing a few brain-based “hot buttons” to achieve a positive state that will make it easier to focus.

Create and maintain a daily routine to give a sense of normalcy within the chaos. Setting boundaries in periods of uncertainty is critical. Acknowledge opportunities to make choices throughout the day (and give plenty of choices to those around you) to increase your sense of autonomy while dampening your feelings of losing control.

Give yourself permission to say no, perhaps in different areas than you would have, pre-COVID. Everyone is dealing with limited resources and reserves. Conserve yours by practicing self-care and keeping it simple where you can.

3. Tackle shorter periods of concentrated work.

For adults, the sweet spot for a period of uninterrupted work is between 60 and 75 minutes — enough time to descend into a project, but short enough to avoid taxing your brain. Yet that might be too long for our current climate. Many people find 20 minutes on and five minutes off to be a better rhythm these days.

Our brains need regular breaks — more so when the pressure is on — and those breaks need to be actual downtime, so schedule in more breaks, and make meetings shorter. And be sure to take real breaks. Don’t check email or surf social media; instead, stretch, breathe, walk or take time for quiet reflection and rejuvenation.

4. Set nearer-term goals.

During any period of uncertainty and volatility, a long-term vision can be extremely helpful if you shorten the planning and execution horizons. Apply this principle at the organizational and strategic levels, as well as in your daily habits and practices at work and home.

Resist the temptation to plan too far out. Instead, make near-term goals with plenty of regular reviews and opportunities to learn and course-correct. A flexible pilot-and-pivot approach is more helpful these days.

5. Make optimization the new watchword.

When circumstances become challenging, we tend to fall back on some common behaviors:

  • Speeding up, to the point of losing perspective.
  • Adding way too many things to our task lists; just looking at the lists is overwhelming.
  • Responding to every instant message and email as they arrive to show you are on the job.
  • Scheduling too many meetings and letting them run too long. The wrong people are present, the right people are absent, and meeting prep is incomplete.

Challenge every one of these unhelpful behaviors with a thought for optimization. Consciously slow yourself down throughout the day. Schedule blocks of time for work followed by short periods for replying to messages and emails, rather than letting them be constant interruptions. Have single-item task lists at any given moment. And practice a whole new level of meeting discipline.

6. Be creative, especially during the holidays.

Take advantage of the disruption and be creative. Do things differently than in the past. The upcoming holidays are a good opportunity to use your imagination and ingenuity.

A big part of COVID fatigue is tied to the lack of control we feel when we realize we don’t know how long this situation will continue. If you find yourself wanting to go out, visit family, eat at restaurants or travel again — especially during the upcoming holidays — remember there really is only one way each of us can make that happen: by staying safe and following health guidelines.

The coronavirus doesn’t care about holidays, and unfortunately, COVID-19 is on the rise across the nation. Now is not the time to let down our guard and say it’s the holiday — let’s be merry. While not explicitly telling people to cancel their holiday plans, scientists are urging people to think of alternative ways to celebrate and are encouraging a kind of rationing of togetherness.

Unfortunately, just like everything else, there are no easy answers. Public health officials doubt that an elegant way exists to finesse the 2020 pandemic-shrouded holidays with minimal disruption, for example, by working through a checklist of best practices that include timely testing, scrupulous social distancing and disciplined mask-wearing. Instead, people will need to make serious adjustments as they calculate the risks and rewards of holiday gatherings.

Give yourself permission to be creative as you think about how to celebrate the holidays differently this year while protecting your older and more vulnerable family members. You may have to say no to invitations to travel and gather with friends and family, unless these gatherings take place online.

7. Be part of the solution.

The emotional energy we bring to every conversation, meeting and exchange has a profound impact on the brains (and hearts) around us.

Whenever you’re under pressure, ask yourself: Am I helping? Or am I making things more complicated?

Consider whether you are leading by example when it comes to being flexible, focused and productive. Are you demonstrating an adaptive mindset to deal with the current challenge? Are you using your imagination, creativity and ingenuity? Are you remembering that everyone is under pressure and practicing patience?

If not, what small shifts could you make at work and at home to do things differently in these different times?