In March, social distancing restrictions took effect across the U.S., and stay-home messages filled my social media feed. I saw lots of appeals to flatten the curve, charts showing how to stop the spread and photos of fun family activities.
But, we’re two months into lockdown now. The weather is getting nicer, and we’re tired of staying home. The photos of homemade banana bread and jigsaw puzzles are being replaced by photos of small groups of people socializing, usually outside, and at a distance.
It’s no surprise that we’re feeling quarantine fatigue, says Melanie Ross Mills, a family relationship expert in Dallas. We need people. “We are created to bond and connect. We suffer when our social bonds are broken,” she says.
And yet, we also need time to ourselves. “Part of our normal routine included breaks from our family and our roommates, and that’s not present anymore,” says Beth Darnall, Ph.D., associate professor and psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine.
The lockdown wears us down for so many reasons.
There’s no clear end in sight.
We have a blueprint for most disasters: They end quickly and we rebuild. The floodwaters recede, the hurricane passes or the terrorist attacks cease. We mourn, and then we recover.
It's not like that with this disaster. It’s indefinite, and that diminishes our tolerance. “We can all get through a lot when we understand where the limit is. It’s easier to get through the workweek when we know at five o’clock on Friday we’ll have a break,” Darnall says.
We can’t support each other like we used to.
We can’t cry together, hug each other or stand shoulder to shoulder at vigils. “The virus in some ways is forcing us to disconnect when during times of crisis we usually come together,” says Susan Bernstein, a licensed social worker in Connecticut and Massachusetts and an adjunct faculty member at Boston University.
We miss both the structure and the freedom of our old lives.
“We crave that return to a normal routine, where we knew when we were going to get alone time, when the children were in school at a certain time, when we had greater control over our environment,” Darnall says.
And we also miss the day-to-day variety that used to exist. “We crave the ease of moving in the world where we could be spontaneous,” she says.
Everything is scary.
Shopping for groceries involves risk. When we’re wearing masks, every breath reminds us of danger. Even walking outside or doing yard work there’s an undercurrent of fear — what if you twist your ankle, or get stung by a bee? “We’re always in this catastrophic thinking, even for the simplest of things,” Bernstein says.
Quarantine fatigue can lead to poor decisions
“The whole reason we’re all home is because of something big and looming. Cortisol levels are high and the adrenal system is being pushed. That makes it really hard to modulate and regulate ourselves,” Bernstein says.
When quarantine fatigue sets in we let our guard down. “Our decisions are not necessarily the best. We’re less vigilant,” Darnall says.
Just being aware of the effects of this lockdown fatigue can make it easier to cope. “Acknowledge your fatigue, hold compassion for it, find ways to work with it. Be sure the fatigue doesn’t lead you to make decisions that put you and other people at risk,” Darnall says.
We can look for creative outlets
By now, we know the obvious ways to maintain our social connections within the constraints of the quarantine—things like group Facetimes with family, Zoom happy hour, and more frequent phone calls. Here are a few more:
Block dinner parties
Darnall says once a week, everyone in her neighborhood brings a table out to the street and they have dinner together. “The tables are about 15 or 20 feet apart — we can maintain that sense of camaraderie while still adhering to social distancing,” she says.
Virtual wine or beer tasting parties
You can get together a group of people, order the same wines or beers, taste them together over video, and share your opinions.
You can chat with a friend via text while you both watch a classic movie, a rebroadcast of a historic baseball or football game, or, like Jane Brody, health columnist for the New York Times, the Metropolitan Opera’s “Akhnaten.”
What if these ideas sound terrible?
If you’re thinking, “ugh,” I get it. These alternatives probably won’t be as satisfying as the experiences we would like to have. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them.
“If we just focus on how we can’t do things the old way, that’s a recipe for feeling helplessness and despair,” Darnall says. “If we focus on how we can creatively go forward with some of the things we love and trying new things in new ways, that opens up the energy and the possibilities.”