It's not just you: Why everyone is super exhausted right now

It's not daylight savings time: You might suffer from "Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience," or PTSE

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 18, 2021 7:02AM (EDT)

Tired businesswoman with face mask sitting indoors in office, feeling headache (Getty Images)
Tired businesswoman with face mask sitting indoors in office, feeling headache (Getty Images)

Besides being the year of the pandemic, 2020 was the year of keeping busy at home. Pandemic hobbies, as they're commonly called, substituted much of the human socializing that occupied pre-pandemic weeknights and weekends. Some people became prolific at growing the natural yeast for sourdough. Others turned to learning a musical instrument, reading more, or just binging television.

But as the era of the great indoors stretches into 2021, many people are reckoning with a more dominant emotion: exhaustion. 

The experience of 62-year-old Lisa Johnson Mandell of Las Vegas epitomized this peculiar exhaustion.

"I don't get just tired or sleepy, I find myself getting exhausted — bone tired, where I find it hard to place one foot in front of the other," Mandell said. "My limbs ache from exhaustion."

And many have anecdotally reported it on social media. 

"Anyone else finding it hard to catch a break these days? So many folks are just exhausted (including me)," Dr. Desmond Upton Patton, a social work professor at Columbia University, opined on Twitter. His remark prompted a long thread of agreement from the Twitterverse. "Global fatigue," one person replied.  

This collective exhaustion arrives at an unusual moment, as the slow-but-steady vaccine roll-out inches us closer to some sense of normalcy. One might think that would lead to a feeling of collective excitement, now that there's an end in sight. Yet it appears to be doing just the opposite.

So, what is going on?

Nathalie Theodore, JD, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Chicago, told Salon it could have to do with the fact that as a society, we've been living under the grip of chronic stress for one year now. From ongoing lockdowns to social distancing, many of the outlets that would usually alleviate a person's stress have been taken away from us for an extended period of time.

"Living with this chronic underlying stress means we have less bandwidth to deal with the ups and downs of daily life, or other emotional triggers," Theodore said, adding that "decision fatigue" could be causing excessive tiredness. "Due to the pandemic, any activity we choose to engage in requires a risk analysis, which is exhausting."

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Indeed, as more people get vaccinated, decisively analyzing the risk of leaving the house —  and mingling with other vaccinated or unvaccinated people — continues to be tiring. Only until recently did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide the public with guidelines on how vaccinated people can interact with other vaccinated people and unvaccinated people. Still, with this guidance, what's safe and what isn't remains a bit confusing during this transitional period. Trying to hash out the details isn't the "normal" we're used to.

Mental health experts say there are other variables at play causing unmanageable fatigue. Ansley Campbell, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and Clinical Director of The Summit Wellness Group, told Salon the exhaustion could actually be a result of having an end in sight. Since our nervous systems have been in survival mode for an entire year, we are finally at a point where it feels a little more safe to relax. That's led us to formally take in the challenges of the past year.

"Now that the infection rates have been decreasing, people are getting vaccinated, and some returning to more normal lives or feelings of safety, that space of feeling the need to constantly survive is also decreasing," Campbell said. "This is causing many clients to now have the time and space to pause and realize the impacts of the past year, which is leading to greater exhaustion."

Fatigue is common in delayed trauma responses, which could certainly be part of the extreme exhaustion many are experiencing. As researchers have noted, persistent fatigue, sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, and anxiety are common delayed trauma responses among survivors.

Dr. Gail Saltz, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast on iHeartRadio, told Salon it might not even be a delayed trauma response, but something called Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience (PTSE). The term, which was coined by the American Psychoanalytic Association, is described as a type of "ongoing trauma response."

"Part of that is the ongoing physiological and psychological effects of being in a pandemic — which is going to vary from person to person depending on the proximity of trauma for them — so trauma could be that you got COVID and were very sick or somebody close to you got COVID and was very sick or died," Saltz said. "You had to abruptly, and in fear, entirely change your life in an ongoing, super-stressful way.

Another part of the exhaustion may relate to our routines being thrown off indefinitely. Dr. Aude Henin, co-Founder and co-Director of the Child Cognitive Behavior Program told Salon that lockdown is like being "perpetually jet-lagged."

"Our daily routines — from the time we get up, to how we get ready for work or school, to when we eat lunch, when we exercise, or spend time with family and friends, to when and how we go to bed — are key to setting our body clocks and regulating our energy levels during the day," Henin said. "The amount and timing of daylight also plays a key role; the sudden and dramatic changes in daily routines, and the lack of time outdoors because of quarantining and social distancing have interfered with our biorhythms and have greatly decreased our energy levels."

For these reasons, mental health professionals emphasized it's important to take care of ourselves during this time.

"It's imperative we prioritize self-care and connect with others in pandemic-safe ways during this time in order to counteract the effects of isolation and get the support we need," Campbell said.

And if you are experiencing extreme exhaustion in addition to other symptoms of clinical depression, mental health experts emphasize it's best to get professional help from a therapist.

"Both poor sleep, and the experience of feeling incredibly exhausted and fatigued and low energy, are a significant part of clinical depression," Saltz said. "I think people should be aware that this could be clinical depression, and they should be knowledgeable of the other symptoms; and if it turns out that they're actually meeting criteria for a bunch of the other symptoms as well then that requires evaluation and treatment," she added. 

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Covid-19 Mental Health Ptse Reporting