How To Avoid COVID Burnout
After enduring various stresses for nearly two years, uncertainty continues to reign. How can we cope with the ongoing challenges of the COVID era?
It’s been a long road since March 2020, especially for parents. Between legitimate fears of illness, school and childcare instability and economic uncertainty, we’ve all been coping with more than we’d ever anticipated – on top of the normal stresses of parenting. The future looks brighter, thanks to vaccines and school reopenings, but this may be when we feel COVID burnout the most, as the adrenaline that kept us functioning has decreased, giving us space to process all that we’ve been through.
Here are some strategies to help us make it through the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as healthfully as possible.
Seize the moment
Pre-pandemic I was a planner. Like many of us, my sense of pleasure was tied up in the future events and gatherings strewn across our family calendar. Then all that ended.
Now I jump on opportunities as they arise, planning less and living more. It’s a beautiful Saturday: Let’s go apple picking now, not next week when I thought we might. We happen to see a child’s friend on her birthday? Let’s give her her gift right now, even though her birthday party is days away.
Planning has its place and reliability remains important, but I’ve come to realize how much I overdid it. Dictating what needs to happen when and where is a trap many parents fall into as we attempt to organize hectic schedules.
Research indicates that spontaneity is key to happiness. In one study of 2,000 American adults, people who self-identified as “spontaneous” were more likely to report being satisfied with their lives and to call themselves a “happy person” than less-spontaneous people.
Being more spontaneous imbues our days with wonder and surprise, key elements of joy. It also staves off disappointments, which are more common in this dynamic era of quarantines, illnesses and losses. That friend we gave the present to early? She didn’t get to have her birthday party due to a death in the family. We were so grateful we seized the moment when we had it.
Choose energizing activities over numbing ones
“Self-care” doesn’t do it for me. It’s a poorly-defined term associated with many habits that aren’t healthy for us, not to mention that it sounds utterly self-indulgent. If we instead focus on making moments to energize our minds just as we make moments to consume food to energize our bodies, we’re more likely to prioritize the activities and not feel guilty for doing them.
The key to this approach is knowing the difference between the activities and friends that actually recharge us, the ones that numb us, and the ones that drag us down. I mean “get it in writing” sort of knowledge. Make three columns on a piece of paper and jot down the three categories (then hide the list so your “drag-down friends” don’t see it!).
We typically resort to the “numb” column when life is hard. Scrolling, drinking, overeating, purchasing and binge-watching are common entries in that column. We feel the same, or worse, after doing them. “Numbing” might have its place, but it can’t be what we hope will buoy us through the stresses of the COVID era. Daily engagement in energizing activities are key,
Energizing activities differ widely from person to person. Don’t know what they are for you? Experiment with different options each day and see what gives you a boost. Aim for a very short period of time each day, ideally no more than ten minutes, so that it doesn’t become such a big commitment that you don’t do it.
For me, a walk alone, certain podcasts or audiobooks, one-on-one time with a couple of friends and creative writing all fit the bill. As burnout seeps in, I try to load up on those activities just as I load up on calories when my physical energy is wearing out after not eating for a while.
An opportunity to welcome change
So many things about the pandemic have been stressful, depleting and devastating. That said, I’ve heard from many of my coaching clients that some aspects of the pandemic were welcomed, like having more time with their kids, not having to commute and feeling less pressure to socialize.
For some of us, burnout is arising from losing those desired elements as “the new normal” shifts into gear. The pandemic offered a social experiment, what design thinkers call a “prototype,” a key step in figuring out a satisfying way of living. There may be lessons to be learned from this experience that can inform our intentional decision-making about next steps. For instance, I quit my job of eighteen years and both of our kids are now in private schools, a set of choices my husband and I never would have considered or thought feasible prior to the pandemic’s forced “prototype” of different ways of living.
Accept and seek-out support
Parents are typically much more practiced at giving support than accepting it. Researcher Brene Brown has found that accepting support is a highly vulnerable act, but one that we need to practice if we’re ever going to be good at giving support to others.
“When you judge yourself for needing help, you judge those you are helping,” Brown writes in Rising Strong, “When you attach value to giving help, you attach value to needing help. The danger of tying your self-worth to being a helper is feeling shame when you have to ask for help. Offering help is courageous and compassionate, but so is asking for help.”
We are social animals who heal through social connection. Therefore, as we struggle with the stresses of COVID, we have to learn to accept and seek out the support of others, including family, friends, and professionals. This moment is way too big to go it alone.