The Covid-19 pandemic has created massive disruption at a global level. We have had to deal with the fear of infection and potential risk of death, the requirements of working from home, adhere to lockdowns, adopt physical distancing and wear masks all while trying to hold some semblance of a normal life together.
It’s exhausting just thinking about it.
When training to become a GP, I was taught that one of the most common presentations would be “the tired patient.” That proved correct. The issue being there are at least 101 different potential reasons for tiredness and while most are benign and readily fixed, it’s important to exclude a serious underlying medical condition.
Which is why if you are tired of feeling tired all the time, it’s a good idea to pop in to see your health practitioner for a proper check-up.
But workplace fatigue is increasing at an alarming rate. In many conversations I’ve had recently I’ve heard the same concerns being shared about the rising levels of stress, which were already too high before the pandemic, burgeoning workloads, the uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last and how bad the economic repercussions may be.
Burnout associated with working from home is a growing issue. This is where losing the boundary between work and home has led to some people falling into hyper-productivity mode, rolling out of bed in the morning and straight onto the computer and working extended hours. The average increase being 2-4 hours a day! Living at work makes it’s harder to switch off or replace work with fun and interesting activities, especially if you’re restricted in what you are allowed to get out and do.
Sleep patterns have also been affected with the increase in fatigue leading people to seek to sleep longer, even though they still feel tired on waking. Others report having either more fragmented or shorter sleep, or sleep associated with weird and vivid dreams.
The way stress makes us more tired is because it takes more mental energy to deal with it, especially when you’re required to also think. We only have a finite amount of mental energy available to us each day. If your tired brain is having to allocate precious mental resources to handle the fear, anxiety and stress associated with your day that leaves less available for planning, organising, decision making, focused attention, logic, reasoning analysis and emotional regulation.
Managing your fatigue matters because it could herald the onset of burnout or put you at greater risk of developing a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression.
Here are Five Things to Help
1. Follow the light
As we move into the Australian summer and lighter mornings, it becomes easier to wake earlier. Keeping to a consistent waking up time will help to reset your circadian clock especially if you can get out for an early morning walk.
Conversely, we often have our houses and apartment too brightly lit at night. Try dimming those lights several hours before bed to help your brain prepare for sleep, and definitely switch off from your technology 60-90 minutes before bedtime.
It’s not just the blue light emitted from our gadgets that plays havoc with sleep by fooling the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, it’s the increased rate of neural firing stimulated by engaging with our screens.
That’s why if you’ve been checking your emails or finishing off a piece of work before bed, you’ll find it harder to fall asleep.
Netflix can wait. Designed to keep you watching “just one more episode” that additional 40 minutes in front of the goggle box will reduce your energy and efficiency the next day. Is 40 minutes of entertainment worth feeling grotty for 16 hours tomorrow?
Take the 21-day challenge. Here you go to bed 20 minutes earlier than usual every night for 21 days and see what difference that makes to your energy and mood!
2. Consistency is key
Your body and mind love routine and ritual which is why having a pre-bed wind-down routine is helpful and keeping to a regular getting up and going to bed-time is important.
If the pandemic caused your exercise schedule to evaporate reintroducing some extra physical activity across your day can help to allay symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression. Remember to set the bar low and go slow, building slowly, especially if the only exercise you’ve had in the last few months has been exercising the remote control from your couch.
A little extra walking, stretching, weights will serve to boost your level of feel-good hormones, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins and restore your focus.
Getting out into a green space (or blue) is especially important for mental wellbeing Aim for a minimum of 2 hours a week and even if you’re surrounded by concrete, getting outside will still help to top up your serotonin levels to help you feel calmer and more content.
Diet-wise, too many corn chips, muffins or heavily processed snack foods especially when accompanied by the sleep poisons of too much caffeine, alcohol or cigarettes will contribute to your level of fatigue and sluggishness. That’s why enjoying energy-boosting foods especially home-cooked meals made with fresh ingredients and love can make a positive difference.
3. Have some fun
Doing something that you enjoy, is fun and puts a smile on your face is energising. My husband was caught in the act this week dancing the light fantastic from the comfort of our lounge room by some tradies working outside. It put a smile on everyone’s face!
Fatigue, overwhelm, and worries can drain our energy which is why it’s more important than ever to help restore some balance to your life. If fun hasn’t graced your home for a while, choose an activity and schedule it in. Better still arrange to do it with someone else so you both benefit. It doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Sometimes it’s the smallest of things that provide the greatest pleasure, just find that activity that lights you up – music, dance or song whatever!
Spending time with people who make you feel good is definitely energising so choose your social partners carefully.
4. Ditch the unhelpful props
When fatigue kicks in and you’re fighting hard to keep on top of things we often reach out for those unhelpful props. Like extra coffee. The problem here that too much caffeine adds to our fatigue by elevating adrenaline levels and increasing our rate of neural firing leading to a crash and burn situation similar to what happens when we use a sweet treat mid-afternoon to raise our sagging energy levels It gives a temporary lift and then sends us down crashing further than where we were before.
If 2-3 cups of coffee or tea is your “usual” amount try to stick to that, and definitely under 5 cups a day.
Alcohol is another prop and the statistics have revealed Covid has resulted in many of us consuming wine more often and more of it.
Alcohol acts as a sedative so you fall asleep easily but the impact on the rest of your sleep is it becomes more fragmented and less restorative. If your alcohol consumption has increased just be mindful of what’s happening to avoid this becoming a more embedded habit and stick to several alcohol-free days each week to help.
The prop often overlooked that can reduce fatigue is good old water. Drinking extra water, tap, filtered or carbonated is a great way to keep your body and brain well hydrated so they function better. How much do you need? Enough so your pee is a beautiful light shade of yellow. I like my water with a slice of lemon. How do you drink yours?
Easy to say, harder to achieve when stress and overwhelm are your constant companions. Again, this is about finding those activities that YOU find calming It could be exercise, breathing practices, meditation, reading, listening to music.
When stress is making it harder for you to function and fatigue is dragging you down, try to identify what activities could be contributing. Are you working too many hours? Have you got too much on your plate? If so, can you delegate some things or ask for help?
Have you taken time out for yourself? Many folk I’ve spoken to haven’t had any time off work since the pandemic began.
If that’s you, no wonder you’re tired!
A staycation may not sound as glamorous as an overseas holiday but taking time off to poddle around at home, chilling out, fixing up the garden or undertaking a couple of projects you haven’t had time for can be a great way to defrag, restore and refresh.
Fatigue is not just a nuisance it’s a red flag indicating our system is under stress.
If too much chronic fatigue is getting you down, what have you found help to overcome it?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.