As a practicing psychiatrist, I am experiencing emotional exhaustion since a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has dominated the news and impacted our lives.

I am drained. I am tired of the virus engulfing my entire life. It is as if every conversation revolves around the pandemic. Escaping the virus seems impossible as it has taken over social media and news outlets. I can only process so much suffering.

I know I am not alone. I am constantly hearing the same message from patients, colleagues, family and friends. Our lives have been turned upside down from the pandemic. We long for this bad dream to end and for everything to return back to normal.

What is Burnout?

The term “burnout” is a relatively new term, first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger. He defined burnout as the state of “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.”

Even though burnout is not a mental health diagnosis, the term has been widely studied. It has traditionally been used to describe a reaction to prolonged work stress. Burnout is prevalent among many employees, especially healthcare providers, teachers and social workers.

Considering the abrupt and intense emotional, financial and psychosocial stress that people are enduring during the pandemic, it is reasonable to believe that many are experiencing symptoms of burnout during this difficult time.

Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Feelings of detachment or apathy
  • A high level of dissatisfaction
  • A reduced sense accomplishment
  • Reduced performance at work or home
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Increased levels of irritability

Please note that experiencing burnout is not limited only to those with a job. Burnout can affect anyone. After all, the virus does not discriminate between those with or without a job.

How does COVID-19 contribute to Burnout?

The impact of COVID-19 has been profound. The virus has emotionally impacted our lives in two ways.

First of all, we are grieving an extreme number of losses in a short period of time. Consider how our lives have changed since the pandemic reached U.S soil only a few months ago.

The financial blow has been severe. Many have lost their jobs or had their wages cut. Countless others have seen their savings evaporate as the stock market has taken a plunge. Businesses have shut down.

We have also lost a great deal of freedom. Stay at home orders come at a tremendous psychological cost. Many gyms, libraries, restaurants and shops have been ordered closed. However, even the atmosphere in open stores is no longer the same. What was once a leisurely stroll down the aisle of our favorite retail store has turned into a suffocating mad dash as we dodge air particles while wearing our face masks.

We are also experiencing a loss in emotional connection. We have stopped visiting loved ones in the name of social distancing. I am doing my best to stay connected with my mother via videoconferencing. However, it is not the same as visiting her. There is a part of me that finds videoconferencing taxing and just wants to enjoy a home cooked meal in her kitchen.

The second factor that is contributing to burnout is the spike in uncertainty since COVID-19 has taken over our lives. The rise in uncertainty is associated with an increase in anxiety. We worry about our wellbeing, the risk of infection, the safety of our loved ones, our job security, the weakened economy and most importantly “Will life ever return back to normal?”

Loss and uncertainty are painful experiences. We can absorb only so much pain before burnout takes over. Though painful, our best option is to find healthy ways to cope.

Here are some strategies to combat burnout:

1. Express your Feelings

To some degree, experiencing burnout is appropriate under the current circumstances. We are experiencing a great number of losses and unwanted change in a short period of time.

It is important to put your experience into words. Do not suppress your feelings as this will only amplify the symptoms of burnout. Labeling your feelings about the pandemic can help you better regulate them.

2. Keep Daily Structure

The pandemic has disrupted our daily routine. Many people are working from home or have lost their jobs. We no longer drop off our kids at school or their evening extracurricular activities. Without incentives to keep a daily structure, it is easy to drift into a hypnotic state in which we lose track of time as days bleed into one another.

It is important to maintain some sense of routine during these difficult times. Try waking up and going to bed around the same time. Schedule times for preparing and consuming healthy meals, engaging in physical activity and reaching out to loved ones. Try to differentiate weekdays from weekends by scheduling special activities on the weekends.

3. Practice Self-Care

With competing work and family demands, it can be difficult to carve out time for yourself. You may feel that sacrificing self-care is necessary to meet your numerous responsibilities. You may even feel guilty devoting time to self-care.

Remember that self-care is not a selfish act. It is an act of self-preservation. Self-care is necessary to meet your responsibilities and serve your loved ones to the best of your ability. Examples of self-care include exercise, meditation, creating art, journaling your thoughts and reading. Pick an activity that you find invigorating. Make it a priority to schedule the activity throughout the week.

4. Do Not Isolate

Remember that we are all in this together. We are all affected in some manner from the global pandemic. Practicing social distancing is not an invitation to socially isolate. We have a need for connection.

Pick up your phone and reach out to your loved ones. Use available technology to connect with others. Designate a time every day that is devoted to connecting with family and friends.

5. Limit Media Consumption

We often feel more anxious or upset after watching the news or spending time on social media. Remember that some media outlets may not always present the news objectively but in a manner that elicits an emotional reaction. As the saying goes, “Sensationalism Sells.”

If you want to stay updated on the latest news related to COVID-19, do not blindly search for updates on the internet. Follow credible sources such as the CDC, your state governor or your local healthcare provider.