West Ottawa psychotherapist on COVID-19 fatigue

Submitted by Stacey Kirkpatrick, MACP, RP, a psychotherapist serving West Carleton and west Ottawa (see bio below):

The pandemic. Covid-19. Coronavirus. It is impacting our community in ways that many people don’t realize. We have gotten used to being home and while we struggle with juggling children and work, or dogs barking, and slow Internet, there is an underlying challenge we may not even realize. Mental fatigue and it’s side effects.

Currently, as we learn how to do almost everything in a new way, we exert mental energy to do even the most mundane tasks such as shopping. Many believed that with phase two and stores re-opening, they will feel like things are starting to go back to normal. The reality however is that re-opening just means we will be encountering even more situations where we must constantly be vigilant of our actions.

Our brains like routine and often runs on autopilot. The first week driving to a new job is exhausting but before long we hardly remember the drive at all. Our brain was on autopilot. But what is going on inside your brain? We develop neural pathways and the more we use the pathway, the easier it is. It becomes a super-highway of sorts. The path is quick, easy and requires little effort. When we change our routine, suddenly we find ourselves on a new unused path we are not familiar with. We trudge through this new little used path, exerting a lot of energy to get to our destination. The next time we use the path, there are footprints to follow and over time, the path grows wider and easier to take, until one day it becomes our easy to use super-highway. Our brain does this with every activity as it builds new neural pathways.

Previously, at the grocery store, you parked in the same area. You walked through, gathered groceries, and headed to the cash with minimal thinking. Now, we arrive, and we are watching for signs indicating which door to use. We wait in line, looking for the six-foot markers for social distancing. We follow arrows that take a path different from our normal one and then the cash involves being instructed which cash to use and standing behind plexiglass, watching those around us to see if they are wearing masks. Someone walks by and our brain wonders if they maintained proper distancing. Every single step of this simple grocery run requires thought and awareness. This is why we are tired.

What are the side effects of this mental fatigue? Our struggles become more challenging to manage. For an anxious person, normally their mental energy can be used to manage the anxiety, but now that reserve is depleted. We also don’t have the mental energy to be as patient with our children, partners, co-workers or neighbours. We may not have the mental power to overcome long held patterns of sarcasm or criticism when speaking with our partners and we end up fighting more.

What can you do to help manage this mental fatigue?  Go back to basics.

  • Sleep: Make sure to get enough sleep. Trouble sleeping?  Thoughts swirling through your head?  Do a brain dump and write the thoughts on paper or in your preferred device.
  • Activity: Get some physical activity, even if it is just a walk around the block. Whatever you can manage will help.
  •  Food: Look at what you are eating. Decrease the processed foods and sugar. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Media: Decrease your consumption of media. Pick a time of day and a time limit and stick with it. Set a timer and when it goes off, turn off your device.
  • Practice mindfulness: Some people will skim over this one, but it is particularly important and does not have to be “airy-fairy.” Even the simplest mindfulness practice that involves focussing on your breath will help. But it is a practice which means you cannot just try it when you are stressed. I compare it to push-ups. If I do a push-up today and one next week, in a couple months when I need to be strong, I will not be. If I do them every day, I build up strength and the push-ups become easier. I can hear you say, “I can’t keep my mind focussed when I try mindfulness or meditation.”  That’s okay. Your mind can wander dozens of times. Notice it wander then bring it back to the breath. That is the push-up of mindfulness. That is what builds your mental strength. That is the mental strength that will help you manage all these new situations that we are encountering as we encounter a new world with Covid-19.

Be gentle with yourself and understand things are different, and it is okay to take some time to figure out your new normal.

Stacey Kirkpatrick is a Registered Psychotherapist and serves people from all over West Carleton, Stittsville and Kanata by phone, online or in her Kanata office. She is also the Chair for Voice Found (voicefound.ca), a charitable organization that works to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation and to support the healing and recovery of individuals and communities from the health, financial and emotional impacts of sexual exploitation.