Coping With Pandemic Fatigue: Practical Tips For Maintaining Mental Health In The Long Haul

  • Kiri Ghataorhe Master of Science – MSc, University College London (UCL)

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In 2020, in the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) characterised pandemic fatigue as the “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours”, such as the wearing of masks or social distancing.1 The concept of pandemic fatigue has evolved over time and even measures like the Pandemic Fatigue Scale have emerged in recent years.2  

Arguably the greatest crisis of our times, the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped lives the world over, leading to higher rates of mental ill health on the backdrop of economic, educational, and social challenges.3 The adverse impacts of the pandemic, including physical and psychological, can be long-term.4

Since the WHO reported on pandemic fatigue, scholars have investigated and outlined ways to build resilience and improve mental well-being.3 These strategies are designed at the individual level and at the shared community level and can help support those with pandemic fatigue now and into the future.

What is pandemic fatigue?

Before we delve into the practical tips for managing mental health to better cope with pandemic fatigue, let’s take a closer look at what pandemic fatigue is. 

Public health directives are specifically implemented to help safeguard the whole population against disease and improve overall health and well-being. These are regulations, procedures, laws, and policies that national and local authorities must follow to ensure specific health-related goals are met. 

However, over time, the continual demand for health directives can cause people to feel fatigued, weary and more lax in following them.3 During the COVID-19 pandemic, many directives were issued from one lockdown to the next and from one variant to the next, including social distancing, wearing masks, frequent hand washing, remote working or studying, home confinement and quarantine, among others. These drastic changes to our lifestyles, compounded by fear, stress and grief, led to physical and mental exhaustion.3 In addition, those who experienced - and may still be experiencing - ‘long-covid’ can suffer from extreme tiredness and fatigue.5

For this article, pandemic fatigue will follow the WHO’s definition of“demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by several emotions, experiences and perceptions.”1 The WHO considers pandemic fatigue, and the associated declining adherence to government guidelines, to be a serious threat to controlling the spread of the virus.1

Pandemic fatigue may arise from:

  • People’s reduced efforts to keep informed about the pandemic
  • Perceptions of the disease as lower risk without evidence to support this.1 This may also be because the balance of costs to the person outweighs the risk of the disease – for example, the social cost of being restricted to the home becomes greater than the perceived risk of catching the virus
  • The desire for a greater sense of agency or control over one’s life1
  • Normalisation of lockdown conditions, making one more complacent to the threat of the pandemic1

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only global pandemic to have seen pandemic fatigue. The deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic led to a similar succession of public health directives for the safety of the global population. Widespread objections to restrictive activities were seen, even in times of high risk of infection, drawing many parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic.6

Even when vaccines are available – as they were and are for COVID-19 – they are not fully effective and must be updated to deal with newly emerging strains of the virus. And so, even in vaccinated populations, pandemic fatigue can occur.7

Key symptoms and features of pandemic fatigue7,8

  • Being less adherent to social distancing and other protective behaviours (e.g., mask-wearing)
  • Experiencing emotional burnout or feeling emotionally drained
  • Pessimism, cynicism or negative beliefs about the pandemic, government, or world
  • Perceptions of lockdown being ineffective or unnecessary
  • Feeling anxious about the future

How to cope? self-care tips

Evidence shows that an unexpected event, such as a global pandemic, can be detrimental to mental health.3,8 Added to this, public health restrictions, fear, isolation, social inequity, and misinformation, among other factors, can cause stress, frustration and fatigue.3

The WHO’s 2020 report outlines many actions decision-makers can take to help communities and individuals better cope with pandemic fatigue.1  But here, we will outline some individual tips for coping with pandemic fatigue  that will help improve your mental well-being in the long term.

Building psychological flexibility

Psychological flexibility refers to the ability of someone to change their behaviour to adapt to a challenging situation. Studies have found that:

  • Those with high levels of psychological flexibility adapted better to meeting social needs during the pandemic, and to following social distancing guidelines9,10
  • Those with low levels of psychological flexibility experienced higher levels of depression, anxiety and insomnia during the pandemic11

To build psychological flexibility, acceptance and positive framing are useful techniques.12 This could involve:3

  • Focusing on the present and grounding oneself in the present
  • Looking at potentially adverse situations using logic rather than emotion e.g., how could you prevent the worst-case scenario practically, rather than worry about the scenario itself
  • Remembering that many other people are working through the same challenges and that you are not alone (communal coping)
  • Socialising and having high-quality interactions with others

Managing stress and mitigating burnout

Stress is related to pandemic fatigue with many people experiencing excessive stress and burnout. Burnout can in turn negatively impact mental health, reducing motivation, causing sleep problems and leading to conditions like depression and anxiety.3 To help reduce stress and protect yourself from burnout:

  • Take regular breaks throughout the day
  • Actively reflect through keeping a journal or meditating. Use this to identify what your key stressors are and what you should prioritise 
  • Reflect on how you can protect against your stressors, what obstacles might be in the way and how you could overcome these 
  • In situations where you don’t have control, distract yourself from the challenge or stress
  • Develop an individualised wellness plan that integrates the above into one tool to incorporate into your daily life

Building resilience

Resilience refers to our capacity to overcome challenges and to adapt to new and uncertain circumstances effectively. To build resilience overcome some of the aspects of pandemic fatigue and support your longer-term mental health, you can:3

  • Focus on what you can do, and less on what you cannot do to feel less overwhelmed and more focused and grounded
  • Cultivate close and meaningful relationships with others
  • Take up expressive writing 
  • Use online interventions or training designed for building resilience

Reducing loneliness and social isolation

Loneliness is the gap between the level of social contact we would like to have and what we do have. Social isolation is about how many social contacts we have. The restrictions placed on people during the pandemic exacerbated both loneliness and social isolation.3

To reduce loneliness and social isolation due to pandemic fatigue, you can:

  • Use digital platforms like the internet or virtual communication platforms like Zoom and Teams to engage with family, friends and colleagues, share content and build a support network
    • Are you worried about content on the internet? Try to consume content that is more neutral or positive, rather than that which is emotionally negative
    • Are you concerned about digital fatigue? Take regular breaks
    • How can you build stronger connections with others on a virtual platform? Look into the camera itself, and not the screen, to make more direct eye contact with the person
  • Access virtual interventions such as mindfulness-based therapy

Tips for families and parents

The stay-at-home restrictions put in place forced people of the same household to spend long periods together, sometimes leading to tension and frustration.3 Taking time to listen to each other and how the pandemic has impacted each person in the household can help build connection and understanding.3

To mitigate against parental burnout, parents should take care to improve their well-being through building a positive emotional perspective on day-to-day experiences. Helping, particularly younger, children to be more independent can also protect parents from burnout.3

Support for at-risk communities

Evidence shows that marginalised minority populations encounter additional stressors such as inequality and discrimination, stressors which contribute to pandemic-related fatigue.3 Members of these communities should seek local community interventions (such as support groups) and services which have been tailored to them and their culture, for example, through the use of language or through cultural awareness training.

Other tips for maintaining mental health

There are many ways for us to take care of our mental health and well-being in the long run. For example, you can:

  • Eat healthy and stay hydrated
  • Exercise regularly 
  • Get enough sleep and maintain sleep hygiene (for example, by reducing your exposure to blue light from screens just before bed)
  • Practice mindfulness, relaxation and meditation
  • Establish personal goals and priorities for your well-being
  • Practice gratitude by reminding yourself or writing down things you are grateful for
  • Stay appropriately positive and challenge negative thoughts or thoughts that are unhelpful to you
  • Keep connected to your support network of family and friends
  • Seek professional help if you experience any symptoms that are severe or distressing. Click here for NHS guidelines on where to get urgent support for mental health

Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant, unprecedented impact on the health and wellbeing of many people around the world, including many adverse effects on mental health. Pandemic fatigue is when people become demotivated to follow public health directives for disease control, such as mask-wearing or social distancing. This can be due to several factors such as burnout, heightened stress, or feelings of loneliness or isolation. There are many ways to mitigate against pandemic fatigue and protect your mental health for the future, from connecting with others and building social networks including online to practising mindfulness, meditation, and journaling, keeping active and eating well, and seeking mental health support from a healthcare provider as and when needed.

References

  1. World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe. Pandemic fatigue: reinvigorating the public to prevent COVID-19: policy considerations for Member States in the WHO European Region. 2020. Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/335820.
  2. Lilleholt L, Zettler I, Betsch C, Böhm R. Development and validation of the pandemic fatigue scale. Nat Commun. 2023 Oct 10;14(1):6352. doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-42063-2. PMID: 37816702; PMCID: PMC10564944. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-42063-2.
  3. Zarowsky Z, Rashid T. Resilience and Wellbeing Strategies for Pandemic Fatigue in Times of Covid-19. Int J Appl Posit Psychol. 2023;8(1):1-36. doi: 10.1007/s41042-022-00078-y. Epub 2022 Sep 30. PMID: 36196257; PMCID: PMC9523176. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41042-022-00078-y.
  4. Adorjan K, Stubbe HC. Insight into the long-term psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2023 Mar;273(2):287-288. doi: 10.1007/s00406-023-01599-6. PMID: 36971863; PMCID: PMC10040902. Available from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00406-023-01599-6.
  5. Gross M, Lansang NM, Gopaul U, Ogawa EF, Heyn PC, Santos FH, Sood P, Zanwar PP, Schwertfeger J, Faieta J. What Do I Need to Know About Long-Covid-related Fatigue, Brain Fog, and Mental Health Changes? Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2023 Jun;104(6):996-1002. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2022.11.021. Epub 2023 Mar 21. PMID: 36948378; PMCID: PMC10028338. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10028338/.
  6. Matta S, Arora VK, Chopra KK. Lessons to be learnt from 100 year old 1918 influenza pandemic viz a viz 2019 corona pandemic with an eye on NTEP. Indian J Tuberc. 2020 Dec;67(4S):S132-S138. doi: 10.1016/j.ijtb.2020.09.032. Epub 2020 Oct 8. PMID: 33308659; PMCID: PMC7543972. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7543972/.
  7. Taylor S, Rachor GS, Asmundson GJG. Who develops pandemic fatigue? Insights from Latent Class Analysis. PLoS One. 2022 Nov 10;17(11):e0276791. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0276791. PMID: 36355709; PMCID: PMC9648732. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9648732/#pone.0276791.ref007.  
  8. Paredes MR, Apaolaza V, Fernandez-Robin C, Hartmann P, Yañez-Martinez D. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on subjective mental well-being: The interplay of perceived threat, future anxiety and resilience. Pers Individ Dif. 2021 Feb 15;170:110455. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2020.110455. Epub 2020 Oct 13. PMID: 33071413; PMCID: PMC7552984. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7552984/.   
  9. ​​Doorley, JD, Goodman FR, Kelso KC, Kashdan TB. Psychological flexibility: What we know and what we think we know. 20 September 2020. Soc Personal Psychol Compass, 14: 1-11 e12566. doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12566. [full text not available]
  10. Seiter, S, Curran T. Social-distancing fatigue during the COVID-19 pandemic: a mediation analysis of cognitive flexibility, fatigue, depression, and adherence to CDC guidelines. 2021. Communication Research Reports, 38(1), pp. 68–78. doi: 10.1080/08824096.2021.1880385. [full text not available]
  11. Wąsowicz G, Mizak S, Krawiec J, Białaszek W. Mental Health, Well-Being, and Psychological Flexibility in the Stressful Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Front Psychol. 2021 May 17;12:647975. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.647975. PMID: 34079495; PMCID: PMC8165170. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/psychology/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.647975/full.
  12. Tindle R, Hemi A, Moustafa AA. Social support, psychological flexibility and coping mediate the association between COVID-19 related stress exposure and psychological distress. Sci Rep. 2022 May 23;12(1):8688. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-12262-w. PMID: 35606392; PMCID: PMC9126245. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-12262-w.

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Kirandeep Ghataorhe

Master of Science – MSc, University College London (UCL)

Kirandeep Ghataorhe holds a BA (Hons) in Physiological Sciences from the University of Oxford and two MSc degrees in Neuroscience and Clinical Mental Health, both from UCL.

She has many years of experience working in consulting for the health and care sector. She has led major strategy, evaluation, and transformation projects with the NHS, as well as local authorities and central government.

Kiri has supported research projects with various Wellcome Trust centres as well as City University. She has also been a Trustee for the Brazelton Centre UK for the past 3 years.

She is passionate about communicating health and care information to the public in an engaging and evidence-based manner.

Kiri spends her spare time reading, walking in nature, and practicing yoga.

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