HEALTH PLUS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things: the way we interact with persons, our schedules, digital screen time, our responsibilities, financial pressures and more so our stress and fatigue levels. For some, these changes have not been for the better.
If you have been feeling like you are dragging lately, you may be wondering what is going on. If this seems familiar, you may be struggling to get back on track and concerned if or whether you can. The good news is that in many cases you can make changes that will resuscitate your energy, but you need to get to the root of the problem to remedy it.
As we come to the close of an unprecedented year that changed the paradigm of work-life-balance, and stretched our bandwidth to cope, let us explore strategies to rein in our energy levels back to normal.
Part of the challenge when it comes to a general symptom like fatigue is that it is so commonplace and can be triggered by so many different things. “Fatigue is a frequent symptom that can be caused by a whole host of factors, from medical conditions, inadequate diet, stress to poor sleep,” shares Dr Stephanie Tung, an attending Psychiatrist, Harvard Health. “This makes it hard to pinpoint the root of the problem. However, there are a few main culprits that often cause fatigue”, says Dr Tung. Additionally, fatigue arises from juggling multiple demands all at once and operating from a seemingly endless place of threats to our health and contemplating the next steps to keep ourselves safe.
Numerous medical conditions, including infections, anaemia, heart disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer, neurological conditions, and autoimmune conditions also cause fatigue, says Dr Tung.
If the pandemic affected your eating habits and compromised a well-balanced diet, it may result in vitamin deficiencies that can sap your energy. Two of the most common are vitamin D and vitamin B12 deficiencies. Fatigue is also sometimes brought on by dehydration.
Hormonal changes can also contribute to shifts in metabolism and sleep disturbances, which lead to fatigue. Problems associated with the thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland located at the front of your neck that regulates your metabolism, may also cause fatigue. When the thyroid gland is underactive and produces inadequate levels of thyroid hormone (a condition called hypothyroidism), it can make you feel tired, in addition to other symptoms. Women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease, and incidence rises with age.
Poor sleep habits or sleep disorders
Perhaps the most obvious reason you might be feeling tired is that you are not getting adequate sleep. The uncertainties of the pandemic led to several anxieties that can easily disrupt a comfortable night’s sleep. Poor sleep quality can be triggered by stress, or sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea.
THREE TIPS FOR COPING WITH THE PANDEMIC FATIGUE
1. Monitor your social media:
Stop ‘doom scrolling’ and limit time on your screens.
“Your attention is currency, and social media is designed to take as much of your attention currency as possible,” shares Clinical Psychologist Justin Ross, UCHealth University, Colorado.
“Doom Scrolling, or purposely tuning in to negative stories on social media, fuels increased dread, uncertainty, anxiety, and fatigue,” Ross said.
His advice: deliberately stay off social media. If you’re hooked on checking your social feeds on your phone, remove the apps. Try scheduling two, five-minute “check-in” sessions each day, other than that, stay off social media. Limit your consumption. Pick one or two trusted sources for news that you are going to rely on and screen out all the others.
2. Breathe and Meditate
Breathing exercises are the simplest way to reduce stress and anxiety. Slow your breathing to tell your body that there’s no immediate threat. We’re built to kick into gear quickly if we need our “fight or flight” response. But stress also can trigger the same systems. And our bodies do not do well if we’re constantly on high alert. Breathing helps us manage the anxiety response on a physical, physiological and mental level.
One minute of deep breathing helps slow down the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response associated with anxiety. Deep breathing also helps turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us restore balance and can provide a sense of calm and focus.
A simple deep breathing exercise at least three times a day will make a significant change. Schedule them and encourage yourself to slow down and breathe.
3. Reflect and Assess
Take time to check in with yourself and reflect on how you are doing. If you feel irritated, impatient or angry, accept that all these responses are normal and understandable during such a difficult time.
Awareness must be the cornerstone of any coping toolkit. We need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge that what we are feeling is 100% normal. It is important to seek support from a loved one or a healthcare professional if the symptoms are beyond your control.
However, not all causes of fatigue are treatable on your own. You may need to pay a visit to your primary care professional. “Warning signs for fatigue include severe or persistent symptoms or when it interferes with your ability to function,” says Dr Tung. If this is the case, it may be time to make an appointment to get checked out. Your clinician will want information about your diet, physical activity, sleep habits, stress level, and mood.
Replenish your Reserves: Active “Self-Care”
During difficult times, we need to consciously carve out breaks to restore and replenish our reserves. In order to take care of ourselves in restorative ways, we need to make deliberate decisions to achieve a level of equanimity.
“People say, ‘I don’t have time,’” Ross said. “But if you make self-care a priority, you will find a way to make it happen.” “Sitting on the couch and binging Netflix can seem relaxing, but it also can be avoidance behaviour that isn’t actually restorative at all,” Ross said.
Reconnect with nature, read a book, meditate, take an aromatic bath – Do things that are deliberately calming. Another way to replenish energy is through what is known as “active self-care.” Physical activity, exercise and anything that connects you to meaning and movement will be beneficial.
Finding a balance and being deliberate about your choices is the key in resuscitating your energy levels and one you can accomplish as we move into a new year.