7 self-care tips for coping with 'crisis fatigue'

Experts weigh in with advice on how to ease the effects of unrelenting stress.
Covid Fatigue Lead
TODAY illustration
By Nicole Spector

We’re nearly six months into the COVID-19 crisis and the death toll continues to rise as the virus spreads. This information in itself is enough to send the human brain into panic mode, but a pandemic isn’t our only problem; there’s also additional ongoing stressors: fighting over the necessity of masks, political chaos, mass job loss, a strained health care system, civil unrest, a national reckoning with systemic racism and the debate on whether or not to send kids back to school. It’s a lot to deal with — too much, even — and in many cases it’s resulting in what mental health experts call “crisis fatigue.”

“Crisis fatigue is when a stressful incident becomes enduring or chronic,” Eric Zillmer, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of neuropsychology and director of athletics at Drexel University in Philadelphia told TODAY. “The reason for this is that humans are not equipped to deal with extensive periods of stress over long periods of time. Our defensive systems are designed to prepare us for short bursts of emergency preparedness.”

This is known as the fight-or-flight response, Zillmer explained, adding that it’s adaptive, but it’s only really helpful for short-lived emergencies, like when a car pulls out in front of you and you need to react. These days, however, we’re in a more constant state of emergency, he said, which compels us to keep trying to adapt. “This creates stress and anxiety, which is cumulative and ‘contagious,’ and we feel we may be reaching our tipping point.”

Crisis fatigue is like lifting too much weight

“Consider a person lifting weight: At first they can lift 200 pounds quite easily, but as repetitions increase, the muscle loses its strength,” said Eric Patterson, a licensed professional counselor in New York City. “The movement becomes more challenging, their form worsens — and eventually they fail to lift the weight at all. Crisis fatigue is the mental health equivalent.”

While crisis fatigue is not a clinical diagnosis, it is an increasingly common phenomenon. “It is on the rise because we have been confronted with an invisible virus that is creating havoc politically, financially, in our workplace — and probably at home as well,” said Zimmler.

Lori Ryland, Ph.D., the chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, said that there’s been an increase in the number of people “seeking treatment (who) are reporting high levels of anxiety, depression and hopelessness” that is likely linked to crisis fatigue.

What are the signs and symptoms of crisis fatigue?

Signs and symptoms of crisis fatigue may include insomnia, oversleeping, lethargy, depression, anxiety, irritability and trouble with making decisions.

“If you feel like you can’t focus or your energy levels are so low that it’s hard to get motivated to manage everyday activities (or) if you feel sad or overwhelmed — or it could also be that you are angry and are lashing out uncharacteristically — those are all signs of crisis fatigue,” said Zimmler.

But it’s hard to say whether your depression during coronavirus, COVID-19 anxiety or feelings of being tired and overwhelmed are the result of crisis fatigue for certain, since these are all symptoms that could point to a physical health issue or a mental health one, as well. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to get a full examination to rule out other conditions.

7 ways to cope with crisis fatigue

If you think you may be experiencing crisis fatigue, there are a number of things you can do to help yourself feel better. Here are seven self-care tips to ease the effects of unrelenting stress.

1. Cut out the negative coping skills

“Negative coping skills are sneaky because they seem like quick and easy solutions, but they create bigger problems later,” said Patterson. “Alcohol, drug use, overspending money and casual sex all seem like good ideas until the negative consequences come.”

2. Stick to a routine

“Find a new routine and stick to it as much as possible,” said Alexandra Finkel, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City. “Routine and predictability are a powerful antidote to crisis because they create stability. Think about small ways you can create routines, like eating breakfast at the same time every day, designating specific working hours/days, watching a television show with your family.”

3. Pay attention to the story you’re telling yourself

“It is a uniquely human tendency to maintain a ‘story’ that we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what our life is like,” said Ryland. “Some people are very good at finding the positives in life and cultivating gratitude. Others may discover feeling stuck in a negative narrative increases feelings of hopelessness. Keeping a daily gratitude journal, listening to motivational videos and journaling can be used to shift our story to a hopeful and more positive one.”

4. Practice mindfulness

“A consistent mindfulness practice has been shown to improve the ability to cope with stress and dampen the physiological elevations associated with crisis fatigue,” Ryland said. “If you have never practiced mindfulness before, it can be helpful to read a book, such as ‘Mindfulness for Beginners,’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Even a very brief daily practice can be very helpful.”

5. Schedule self-care as a preventative measure

“The essence of self-care is to understand your own needs and give (care) to yourself before you are depleted,” said Finkel. “Think about what helps you feel good, what helps you recharge when your battery is running low. Schedule that time in for yourself, even if it's five minutes a day to watch something that makes you laugh or have a moment to yourself.”

6. Let yourself grieve

“There is enormous loss that comes with crisis, as crisis causes abrupt and profound change,” said Finkel. “Loss always brings grief and there is so much to grieve: the life you had before the pandemic, future plans you had made, important milestones that have been cancelled or postponed, jobs, loved ones, safety, security, independence, work/life balance — the list is endless. Grief is normal and it's needed. Avoiding grief means avoiding acceptance. Nurture your feelings by offering yourself compassion and validation. Try using affirmations and simple mantras to help yourself learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions.”

7. Pull in your support system

“Part of crisis fatigue involves pushing away your loved ones due to irritability and frustration, but this only makes stress higher in the long-term,” said Patterson. “Start by explaining to them your experience and work to arrive at effective plans through teamwork and communication.” Therapy can also be a helpful way to get additional support.