It's safe to say that we've been in crisis overdrive since 2020.
If you haven't been feeling like yourself, or you have resorted to coping in some not-so-healthy ways (over-eating, drinking, shopping, etc.), you're far from alone. Crisis fatigue — a.k.a. the effects of chronic stress hitting us like a tractor-trailer — can manifest in a multitude of ways, none of which are insignificant. Right now, it’s more clear than ever that we need smart, science-driven strategies for handling it.
What is Crisis Fatigue?
When you experience any sort of stressful event, your body automatically goes into a fight, flight or freeze response, releasing a surge of hormones that help you regain the control you feel you’ve lost, says Jennifer Tomko, LCSW, psychotherapist at Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, FL.
Take an everyday crisis, like forgetting your cell phone somewhere. Your mind starts to race (Where could I have left it? What if someone took it? Do I have insurance?), and you frantically rush to the last place you remember having it. Your hormones — primarily adrenaline and cortisol — create these responses, Tomko says, and it’s likely your body tenses and heart rate jumps.
After the crisis has passed, these hormone levels should decrease, Tomko says. But if it keeps going — like when you’re in the midst of all the stressful situations 2020 has put us in — then your body thinks it’s still being threatened and those hormones continue to surge.
"Our brains and bodies aren’t designed for long-term stress."
This is the catalyst to crisis fatigue. While we can handle immediate danger and recover without skipping a beat, “our brains and bodies aren’t designed for long-term stress, and the biological changes associated with that length of exposure are different from the acute changes of short-term wear and tear on the body,” says Margaret Seide, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in New York City. “It decreases optimal functioning.”
That’s why it’s important for us to adapt (helpful change), rather than maladapt (harmful change). “Adaptive ways of adjusting to a crisis include: exercising, eating healthy, practicing self-care and using stress in a productive manner,” Tomko says. “Maladaptive ways may be overeating, isolating, over-drinking, sitting in negative thoughts and catastrophizing.”
Below are some signs you may be doing the latter — and how you can adjust to help temper your personal symptoms of crisis fatigue.
Signs of Crisis Fatigue
How chronic stress manifests day-to-day can look different for everyone, but common symptoms of crisis fatigue include:
Aches and pains; dizziness or nausea; decreased sex drive; GI issues (like diarrhea or constipation); headaches; high blood pressure or rapid heart rate; high blood sugar; worsening of chronic conditions (like asthma or hypertension)
Forgetfulness or lack of focus; low self-esteem or insecurity; lethargy or fatigue; racing thoughts or constant worry; suicidal ideation or thoughts/acts of self-harm
Agitation, anger, moodiness or irritability; emotional reactivity; easily frustrated or overwhelmed; heightened anxiety or depression; lack of pleasure
Change in appetite (binge eating, emotional eating, under-eating, excessive eating); impulsiveness or recklessness; insomnia or nightmares; nervous or compulsive behaviors (nail biting, hand washing); oversleeping; procrastination or avoidant behaviors; social withdrawal (loneliness or isolation); substance abuse
Lingering Consequences of Crisis Fatigue
Chronic stress is no insignificant matter. Yes, short-term stressors allow you to be alert — in turn helping you discern and avoid threats — but long-term high cortisol levels can cause significant damage, says Leah Lagos, PsyD, author of Invincible: How We Can Train Our Hearts to Beat Stress and Achieve Success.
From a physical standpoint, it heightens your risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, Seide says. Emotionally, symptoms like social withdrawal, depression and low self-esteem can change the shape of your life. “You are more likely to be in toxic relationships, not pursue career goals and you run the risk of having a life that doesn’t look like the one you could have had,“ she adds. “That’s the very high price of living with chronic stress.”
The longer these crises last — especially without healthy adaptations — the higher the risk is that your symptoms will worsen. “There is evidence that the duration and intensity of trauma matters,” Seide says. “Think of it as a toxic substance that poisons the body: the more you take, the more damage there will be.”
This is why, unfortunately, people of color are more likely to be negatively impacted by chronic stress. Due to bias in the medical field and systemic racism, minorities are already more likely to have chronic health conditions at baseline, and have worse outcomes than their white counterparts with the same condition, Seide says. “More illnesses mean more doctor visits, and the racial bias that permeates medical decision-making is well-documented,” she adds.
How to Cope
It’s tricky, since the signs can look different for everyone and many are common symptoms that can have multiple potential causes, Seide says. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored or explained away. Here are four ways mental health experts say may help you get in a better state of mind:
Take Screen Breaks
For some, screen time has skyrocketed since the coronavirus pandemic began; Facebook revealed in March that all of its owned apps (including Instagram and WhatsApp) saw a 70 percent bump in usage. Users have even noted their own time bumps, screenshotting their percentage increases and then, ironically, sharing them on social media.
But being constantly immersed in the news isn't great for your mental health, which is why Seide suggests unplugging from screens and current events periodically. “If you are with friends, taking a walk or eating, try to be fully present and put your phone away,” she says. “That small mental respite will help you recharge.”
More specifically, put intentional breathing practices into play. “Breathing at a rate of a four-second inhale through the nose and a six-second exhale through the mouth, for 20 minutes twice per day, can tighten your body’s ability to manage stress,” Lagos says. “Research suggests this twice-per-day practice can help boost your mood, reduce anxiety and increase the ability to let go of negative emotions.”
If you don’t have a 20-minute chunk of time to spare, Lagos says it still helps to break it down into smaller increments; just aim for 40 minutes per day to net the most optimal results.
Being stuck at home all day, every day has caused many to feel a newfound lack of structure that makes the days run together, says Annie Miller, LCSW, MSW, founder of DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy. To counteract that, she says it helps to create a routine, providing an anchorpoint that re-establishes a feeling of control.
Look for cues you can create that signal different parts of the day. Waking up at the same time can be one, Miller notes, as can taking a shower or eating breakfast before you begin work. You can also plan an ideal time for exercise, and agree to step away from the computer at a designated point of the evening. Creating routines, and structuring your day around them, can lead to effective stress relief.
Schedule "Worry Time"
As in, an actual appointment on your calendar. Pick a specific time during the day to let yourself worry, plan and watch the news, Miller suggests. “Acknowledge anything you are worried about, and make plans for addressing those issues.”
The idea is to train your brain to have a contained time to think about difficult things, Miller says. “After your 'worry time' is over, put the stressful things aside, remind yourself it’s not time to worry right now and move on to other things,” she explains. Eventually, your brain will get used to the new routine and will be able to let go of concerns more easily.
Miller’s caveat: Schedule at least an hour before bed, giving your brain time to settle so it’s not as difficult to fall asleep. Use that remaining hour to engage in relaxing activities you enjoy (like reading or drinking tea) before sliding between the sheets.
See a Mental Health Professional
If you’re thinking of hurting yourself, act immediately and seek intervention from a mental health expert. “One of the worst things that can come from exposure to chronic stress is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness... and the worst-case scenario is suicidal thoughts or attempts,” Seide says. “This is how people who feel they don’t have control over their own destiny and are without hope behave.”
But that’s not the only time to seek mental health assistance. If your symptoms are interfering with your relationships, work or capability to practice self-care, consider getting the help of a therapist or psychiatrist. "Seeking out a professional mental health counselor should not be a last-resort, use-only-in-emergency option,” Seide says. "Almost everyone can benefit from processing life events with an objective outside party.”
"Seeking out a professional mental health counselor should not be a last-resort, use-only-in-emergency option."