Mental Health Awareness Month Week 3: Why I am Exhausted from Being Alone & How to Deal with It
During this pandemic are you doing less, but feel more exhausted? Do you have spurts of amazing creativity and then feel the need to nap? Turns out, you’re not alone. In stressful situations our bodies go through physiological responses to stress. We prepare to fight or flee and as this pandemic continues and isolation drags on, we are experiencing more physiological adaptations each time we feel stressed, worried or overstimulated. Over time, these continuous hits can accumulate and are known as an 'Allostatic Load'. This allostatic load is the psychological reason for our pandemic brain fog and why you're exhausted just from being alone.
This load is essentially damaging our bodies the more we are exposed to stress. Even though you feel like you are doing less most days, your brain is still dealing with all the anxiety and strain of this pandemic. You’re exhausted not because your body is working hard, but because your brain is working double time to try and keep up with everything it is being fed.
One a “normal” day you would see dozens of people en route to work and at work. You would go out to lunch and meet up with friends. You would go to the gym, museum, movies or other places that created little interactions and cues to your brain that you are okay and part of a larger social network. Now, all of a sudden you are alone. You become more vulnerable and your brain will work overtime trying to protect you. Even if you are an introvert, this is still hard because you are not in control of who you can see or interact with. Your sense of safety and control were just upheaved and you don’t have control over that situation.
Just like pack animals, when we go into isolation we get lonely. When you are alone you are more vulnerable to threats, so your brain and body kick up that stress hormone to help you. Your brain needs to be on high alert to make sure you can identify any threats in your environment since you are compromised now that you are alone. We may use our social media or the news to identify those threats only to realize that it can exhaust you with all the different media coverage, information and theories out there. This takes up way more energy than you may think, which is why you could be feeling more exhaustion, more frustration, more worry that is different than your “normal” worry.
Cognitive work takes up a lot of physical energy and you don’t even realize it. We are doing so much worrying and rumination about this situation, how it will unfold, how it will affect all of our loved ones as well as our community and that will suck a lot of your energy and drive.
Unfortunately, the stress of lock-downs, “safer at home” initiatives and the mandatory use of masks or gloves are likely to continue. No one knows how much longer and that is part of the stressful problem. Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our stress. What always helps us humans is to have a form of structure or predictability in our lives to help us cope with everyday things. When this is disrupted, our mind, body and souls can take a beating. With those things we feel life is more manageable because you are not expending more energy to figure those things out. That is what is taxing our minds right now and making us more exhausted. So how do we get back to those feelings of predictability and stability in our lives?
#1. Feel It. You really do need to take a moment and just feel your feelings. There is no judgement for feeling lost, sad, mad, concerned, frustrated, overwhelmed or just plain tired. Take time to feel those feelings. Acknowledge them. Accept them and then come up with some coping strategies that will help you move through them. No one likes to live in those feelings. They suck! But when you can acknowledge them for what they are… feelings… you can decide if you want to sit and stew and linger in them or if you want to FEEL them and then let them go.
It can help to write them down and then write down how you will deal with them. For example, if you are frustrated, write down what part of this pandemic is frustrating for you. Is it frustrating that your normal schedule was changed overnight without allowing your mind or body to adjust? Is it frustrating that everything changed without your say-so in it? You didn’t get to choose to work from home or teach your kids for the rest of the semester can be very frustrating. Acknowledge this frustration and then offer it a little “love” and appreciation. You can say, “I appreciate the feelings of frustration I have for the not so subtle shift in my routine and I know I can make things work in my favor.” How have you been able to shift your home life and work life to make it happen? You are resilient and you can come up with answers, sometimes it just takes a moment to write it all down and realize what exactly you are feeling in the first place.
#2. Taking care of your body. One of the best ways to get back those feelings of predictability and structure is to create a daily regime that includes creating amazing meals for yourself. Get your body moving in some way every day and to make sleep a priority. When you can move your muscles you are not only adding in more energy into your system, you are helping lose any “pandemic 15” that you may have gained. Increase in weight can also increase your inflammation in your body which can make you cranky and I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being cranky so I do what I can every day to keep my “crank” levels low. Inflammation is the primary driver in feeling fatigued. It can change how we think and sleep and make us much less interested in doing fun activities. If you can pull yourself off your couch and hop on your bike and ride around the neighborhood for even 30 minutes you will see a boost in your happy hormones and a decrease in your inflammation. Take a brisk walk around a 6 block radius and see how you feel every day. Stream a yoga or Pilates class to increase your breath connection to calm you as well as move your muscles. Try an online HIIT class to get your blood pumping and endorphins awake so you can burn some fat and increase your muscle mass.
All exercise will also help you get a better night’s rest. If sleep has been sporadic for you, make it a priority to calm your mind and body every night before you go to sleep. Turn all electronics off an hour before you need to be asleep. Take a bath or hot shower to warm the muscles and relax the central nervous system. Do some light yoga stretching. Listen to some theta music or a guided meditation before going to sleep. Read an actual book, magazine or newspaper article to help your brain stop racing about worrisome thoughts. Write in a gratitude journal before you go to sleep. Jot down three things you are grateful for and one accomplishment for the day. Write down all the things you are thinking about or worrying about and set it aside. Once it is out of your head and on paper you no longer need to think about it. This allows your mind to slow down and get a deeper rest.
#3 Increase your social support. Just because we have to be physically distant, doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant. Keep your weekly coffee or lunch meetings but do them via Zoom, Facetime, Facebook or What’s App. Create a weekly book club, happy hour, dance party or game night so you can still interact with your friends and keep that connection.
Now, more than ever, is it important to keep your connections alive. Most of us will be able to emerge just fine, but many will still be without a job and/or without a loved one. Be kind, be mindful, be compassionate and be helpful to those who may need some extra love and attention. Check in on your friends on a weekly basis, even after we emerge from the pandemic. Write post cards or send cards to friends across the nation or the world to let them know you were thinking of them. Surprising someone with a handwritten note brings joy to their heart as well as yours. Try it and see how it helps you and your loved ones.