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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in the United States, and as the temperature drops this fall, the rate of infections is climbing.

Fatigue and burnout have affected many. Photo Credit: Maskot.

After eight months of living the “new normal” of the global pandemic, many are experiencing what has been dubbed “pandemic fatigue.” The public health crisis, compounded by political fatigue on the heels of a caustic election season, is bringing about collective trauma, according to Dr. Joanne Bagshaw, a professor in the Psychology Department at Montgomery College and a licensed professional counselor.

“We are living in a long-term chronic stress situation that our nervous systems are really not designed for,” Bagshaw said. “I want to encourage people to focus on stress reduction. The mindset is that these are unusual and extraordinary times. It’s not just the pandemic, we are also dealing with the election and its aftermath. We should really be looking in broader ways and in more micro ways at how we can lower our stress each day.”

Bagshaw said the most important thing is for each person to focus on what he or she needs to do on a daily basis. From setting some time away for a walk, taking in sunshine and fresh air, to scheduling a family Zoom to catch up with relatives—or to get off Zoom after many hours of work. Taking deliberate steps, including safe socialization, is key to maintaining mental health.

We are living in a long-term chronic stress situation that our nervous systems are really not designed for, I want to encourage people to focus on stress reduction.

“Any socially distanced gathering that is safe, like sitting outside,” Dr. Bagshaw said, “is beneficial.”

She encourages employees at Montgomery College—and to anyone else who has paid leave benefits—to take time off. “Everyone in every field is at risk for burnout right now,” said Bagshaw, “which is not just about poor time management. It’s really when you don’t have systemic support in place to manage your stress.” To her fellow faculty, she warned: “We may think we cannot take time off because that would stress out the students, but actually taking time for your own wellbeing sets a good example. You can return more relaxed and present for them.”

Dr. Bagshaw recommends limiting screen time. Photo Credit: Sellwell.

For those spending an increased amount of time online, the doomscrolling phenomenon—a new term referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing—has been in full swing. The onslaught of negative news filling everyone’s screens makes it hard to disconnect—to the point we are losing sleep. Bagshaw’s says limiting screen time can help us with stress management.

“Our brain has a negativity bias. And social media is designed to suck us in, so we need to set some strict structures for ourselves around screen time,” she pointed out. “We need to implement limits for ourselves like we do for our children.”

As the holidays approach, it might be difficult for people to be away from loved ones. “We have to all think about what is going to work for ourselves, our own families, and people we live with,” she said. “If you don’t have people in vulnerable populations in your family and in Maryland, you can eat outside, rent a portable heater, and everything’s great. But that might not work for everyone. It might include some Zoom Thanksgivings, for example. You have to give up some sense of control.” She suggests a community-minded approach that prioritizes keeping infection numbers down, as well as keeping family and community members in vulnerable populations safe.

“Societally, we are going through a collective trauma. It doesn’t mean we all get PTSD, but it is life-altering. People’s lives will change and not necessarily in a negative way because our priorities are also changing. Those are the positive things that may come out of this,” Dr. Bagshaw said. “It is a trauma, but how we interpret that is up to us. Are we using this time to change the culture in positive ways?”

 

Banner photo credit: Cavan Images.

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