We're all exhausted, and the doctors may know why
You’re not the only one feeling tired all the time
There’s an uneasiness you can’t seem to shake off. When the alarm goes off, you’re hitting the snooze button more often than ‘dismiss’. Perhaps it’s just age catching up, you think. A montage of the mornings when you’d jump out of bed with a spring in your step right as the alarm went off plays like a movie in your head. “Why am I so tired?” With no ‘real symptoms’ other than feeling drained, talking to a doctor seems a bit unnecessary at first, but the experts themselves have noted a rise in complaints of tiredness, irritability and mental fog. It’s happening globally as we’re collectively feeling the weight of post-pandemic fatigue.
Consider how disorienting the past few years have been. We’re finally out of lockdown, trying to catch up on everything we missed for two years, but continuing to be bombarded. We’re reading the most devastating headlines on Instagram, then setting the phone down and getting back to our presentations. ‘6 lakh people affected by Assam floods!’ You think, “Oh my god”, and before you can form your next thought, a notification pulls your attention to an urgent email from your boss. Then a Whatsapp forward about Monkeypox and you’re catastrophising about another pandemic hitting. But your cousin’s wedding is also coming up, did you get your lehenga altered yet?
In other words, despite lockdown being lifted, and social and professional spaces being open, post-pandemic fatigue is probably the most ‘normal’ thing about how we’re living right now. “It’s mental whiplash, you could say, that people have been ignoring and now it’s manifesting physically as well,” says Mumbai-based psychotherapist Sanjeevani Bhatia.
“We’ve been under stress for so long that it’s bound to show symptoms physically. Uncertainty, job loss, the death of loved ones from a disease that you could have also caught with the snap of a finger; being restricted indoors, getting used to that and then being forced back out as if nothing has changed,” adds Dr Amandeep Singh, a Delhi-based general physician.
According to Dr Ketki Pillai, a Chennai-based general physician, this is a global phenomenon. “It’s confusing for people because they aren’t able to explain it, and then they feel guilty about it. There’s no fever or body ache, virus, cold or flu that could justify what they’re experiencing so they’ve been taloing it. But it catches up.”
Doctors believe it could be an interplay of different internal and external factors right now. With rising pollution levels, temperamental weather and depleting nutritional quality of the foods we eat, trying to figure out whether you’re experiencing fatigue, anxiety, work burnout, or all of the above can be a challenge.
If you’ve been feeling extra tired lately for no discernible reason, know that you’re not alone. Over 42% of 994 Tweak readers admitted they felt the same way. Experts explain the common reasons why you could be feeling like you’re wrapped in a scratchy blanket of malaise.
It could be seasonal
You could have caught the monsoon blues, but if it’s passing, then Bhatia says there’s nothing to worry about. What you should be paying heed to is if this change in mood, energy levels and sleep pattern has deteriorated to a level where it’s interfering with your daily functioning. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects more people than you think. People themselves probably don’t realise it. It’s a type of depression that is triggered by changing seasons, and usually sets in as the winters come on. It’s also known as seasonal depression,” explains Bhatia.
She says people who have previously struggled with depression, anxiety or any kind of mental health ailment in the past are more at risk of developing SAD, but there is no known cause for it. However, there are elements that she says could aggravate it further.
Our cloudy monsoon days give us minimal sunlight. We need that to regulate our internal body clocks, which include the regulation of the hormones controlling our appetites, mood and sleep. Low exposure to sunlight can also lead to a drop in our vitamin D which can alter the level of serotonin, one of our happy hormones, and cause an overproduction of melatonin which is the sleep hormone. “It is what could possibly be making you feel slow and sluggish even during the day,” adds Bhatia.
The best treatment for SAD changes from person to person and can involve a combination of talk therapy, light therapy, antidepressants (if needed) and also spending some time outdoors to absorb as much sun as you can. Talk therapy here refers to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is a type of psychotherapy that helps you identify and change thought patterns that are impacting your mental health. Light therapy can involve the use of special light therapy lamps which are available on the market but it’s best to get a referral from your doctor to find what would work best for you.
We haven’t had a chance to process what’s happened, and what is happening
“I’ve just been feeling so out of it, and I couldn’t understand why,” says Tweak reader Tejaswi*. Looking back at her life over the past two years; her husband lost his job, making her the sole income earner. They relocated after he found a higher-paying job in another city. She lost one of her closest friends to COVID-19 in the same month she lost her grandmother too. She got pregnant, had a miscarriage and was under constant pressure from the company she worked at to downsize because of low profit. She didn’t want to be the one to take away people’s livelihoods in such dire times. But she had to. Her job was on the line too. It was a lot to take in.
“Some people adjusted better than others. It was overwhelming, now we’re back into the world we once left and expected to just pretend as if nothing happened,” says Singh.
There hasn’t been much of a moment to heal or rest properly, mentally come to terms with all the things that have happened to us and are still happening now. The denial we indulged in to survive is still very much in play, according to Bhatia. “There are unprocessed emotions, a lot of grief and trauma. There’s no going back to our old life, as is expected of us now that it’s over. And we’re still coming to terms with that.”
Take those days off from work (if you can). Plan a night out with loved ones with the intention of celebrating how far you have all come through this tumultuous time. The best thing that the experts say you can do is to find a therapist near you with whom you are comfortable talking about what’s on your mind and processing your emotions.
“I think there is emotional and mental fatigue more than anything. That is what is caused the physical exhaustion,” adds Pillai.
Lockdown could have affected your health
Lockdown left in its wake a health crisis of its own, both in physical and mental health. Restricted to our four walls, we grew more sedentary, binge-eating for comfort.
“The complete sedentary lifestyle, no workouts, overeating and stress combined to exacerbate a lot of lifestyle diseases such as type two diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and such. These have symptoms that include fatigue, headaches, and fogginess that need to be put together and diagnosed with testing by a doctor,” says Pillai.
Ongoing studies have also found a 25% increase in rates of anxiety and depression, as well as substance abuse the world over. These things didn’t magically disappear the moment restrictions were lifted. We’re still carrying them with us.
The best kind of fitness journey is one that is sustainable, says Singh. You could start with beginner’s workouts at home, a short brisk walk and then build up to a longer one. “Don’t go straight to high-level workouts at the gym, you need to give it time for your body and muscles to adjust. Get a vitamin B12 and D test done and you can get supplements to bring up your levels and start incorporating vitamin-rich foods in your diet.”
We’re overworking to compensate
We saw one too many companies fold during the pandemic. Entire industries came to a standstill and work-from-home was a major struggle for some. Bhatia says people are now pushing themselves to compensate for the time lost during the pandemic. “These things come from the top down. There is pressure on bosses to keep businesses alive and profiting, which is transferred to employees to take on more and more.”
Seeing so many people losing their jobs has made others even more paranoid and eager to hold onto the ones they have, stretching themselves thin to the point of snapping. “It’s burnout — professionally and emotionally. It’s a difficult position to be in because your superiors may not be accommodating to your mental health needs,” says Bhatia. What we can do instead to alleviate post-pandemic fatigue is make the most of whatever little downtime we have to unwind in a way that gives us a boost of happy hormones and helps us feel fulfilled.
That could mean picking up a hobby you left behind many years ago. Learning a new language or skill that gives you a sense of fulfilment outside of the professional sphere. It could be meditation, binge-watching Korean dramas with your best friend or coordinating with members of your family to babysit your kids so you and your partner can have some private time for a date night.
“Often when we think we’re relaxing, we actually aren’t. Our brains are either numb or we’re constantly thinking and worrying about what we need to do next in the office or home. Which is why the best thing to do would be to take up a hobby or join a class that completely takes you out of your comfort zone and does not allow you to think about anything else,” says Bhatia.
Setting boundaries at work can be incredibly challenging. For the sake of your mental health, Bhatia says to try and not take on more than you can handle and be a little firmer with colleagues who are trying to pass on their work to you (learn how from our virtual work bestie). Break up a large task into smaller, achievable micro goals that will give you that sense of achievement as well as trigger your brain’s reward system which motivates you to take the next step.
Your nights are stress-filled
Throughout the lockdown, everyone kept talking about the ‘new normal’ but what we seem to have normalised by the end of it is being in a constant state of stress. A lot of the post-pandemic fatigue, Bhatia believes, is because of this seemingly endless barrage of stressful events.
General Adaptation Syndrome is how our body copes with stress. There are three stages in our reaction to a perceived threat: alarm, fight and flight. Since we wouldn’t escape nor fight headfirst, we got stuck somewhere between that and survival mode. Pillai warns that stress interferes deeply with one of the most important bodily functions – sleep. “Sleep is how our muscles and organs recover. You may be getting 6-7 hours every night but be waking up feeling like you haven’t rested at all That’s because chronic stress disrupts our deep sleep patterns, so while we’re still burning up energy, the body is not getting the restorative rest it needs,” says Singh.
A lack of proper sleep also aggravates the inflammation in the body that’s already been triggered by stress, leading to feelings of exhaustion and brain fog.
Getting in your Zzzs is just what the doctors are ordering for post-pandemic fatigue. You can create your own sleep sanctuary at home with silk sheets, and fluffy body pillows and throw in lavender aromatherapy to help you relax. Keep your gadgets away an hour before you want to sleep and try doing some meditation and deep breathing exercises instead (we have a great guided sleep meditation).
You can try playing a mental game to help you fall asleep which Bhatia calls ‘word-lack thereof-association’. Close your eyes take a deep breath and exhale. In your mind think of a word, any word, and follow it up with another completely random, unconnected word. Maybe think of a beach, followed by another unconnected word.
This is a technique that cognitive scientist Luc Beaudoin terms ‘cognitive shuffling’ — purposely scrambling your thoughts. In his 2013 paper published on the subject, he explains that the brain’s constant desire to make sense of everything around us by creating connections isn’t allowing us to sleep, so we distract it with nonsense. His game is a little different from what Bhatia suggests and you can try it out on a phone app he created to help you fall asleep called mySleepButton.
You will love this
It can be scary and confusing not being able to put a finger on what exactly you’re feeling. But the tiredness and post-pandemic fatigue you’re experiencing are more common than you think, and more and more doctors are taking heed.
A note of caution: This story is for educational purposes and contains inputs from experts and personal experiences. Please consult your healthcare provider if you’re in crisis for a treatment plan that works for you.