As “pandemic fatigue” also surges, here’s what you can do

As COVID-19 continues to persist and again surge in many areas, it’s bringing on another hardship: “pandemic fatigue.” Many of us are tired of the prolonged pandemic and are feeling the cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral changes as it progresses. And with the impending winter and uncertainty about the holiday season, that fatigue may only grow.

So what’s a person to do? That was the topic of a recent Zoom presentation hosted by the DMU Staff Organization and given by Julia Van Liew, Ph.D., an assistant professor in DMU’s Department of Behavioral Medicine, Bioethics and Medical Humanities. In addition to this role, Dr. Van Liew provides care as a clinical psychologist at the VA Central Iowa Health Care System in Des Moines, working with individuals with co-occurring psychiatric and medical concerns and specializing in older adults.

“Now people are feeling stressors that are multiple, co-occurring, ambiguous and indefinite,” she said. “The pandemic’s effects span almost every aspect of our lives – such as work, school, family life, social life, recreation, self-care and income/economy.”

Dr. Julia Van Liew offered invaluable ideas for coping with pandemic fatigue.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that “the supports and resources we typically use to cope are either unavailable or harder to access,” she added, such as social supports, faith communities and recreational activities. Another reality is that the pandemic has had a wide range of both negative and positive effects on people, from losing loved ones or jobs to experiencing increased time with family, motivation to connect with old friends and increased time spent outdoors.

“We are not all in the same boat; we are all in the same storm,” Dr. Van Liew said.

DMU employees who viewed the Zoom presentation shared in break-out rooms and via the chat function ideas for coping with pandemic fatigue during the upcoming winter, including investing in warm clothing to allow for outdoor activities, joining a virtual book club, exercising, meditating and taking on new hobbies or home improvement projects. Following her ship metaphor, Dr. Van Liew said such suggestions reflected that “we can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails,” including through adaptation, resilience and acceptance of what we can and cannot control.

She went on to describe the importance of psychological flexibility, “the ability to stay in the present moment and act in line with one’s personal values, even when doing so entails experiencing unwanted thoughts and feelings.” A key component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, psychological flexibility can “mediate the relationship between risk factors and core aspects of human health and well being,” she added. It requires openness – being willing to experience unpleasant thoughts and feelings versus avoiding them; awareness – paying attention purposefully to the present moment; and engagement – identifying and engaging in valued activities that are meaningful and important.

Dr. Van Liew explained some of the challenges of the 2020 holiday season, including the comforts, traditions and togetherness we’re all craving but may not get to enjoy. To cope with these challenges, she advised people to make a plan and communicate it clearly to family members; to manage expectations; to avoid judgment and be compassionate; and to remember that despite all its hardships, the pandemic is a temporary situation.

Employees attending her presentation shared several creative ways for celebrating the holidays, such as planning outdoor and virtual events. Some plan to drop off meals and treats to local loved ones; others suggested families watch the same movie and then have a Zoom meeting to exchange reviews. Driving around to view holiday lights and playing Quiplash and Jackbox – games that work well on Zoom – were other ideas.

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