The virus is exploding again in Europe resulting in new rounds of shutdowns in an effort to contain it. Here in the U.S., the virus is on the rise in 40 states. As we approach 8 months of various forms of restrictions here, I can feel the drop in people’s energy and motivation during meetings, webcasts and coaching sessions. I’m definitely feeling it myself.
Two new phrases in our lexicon now are Zoom Fatigue and Pandemic Fatigue. Fatigue is extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness. For most of us, physical exertion is probably not the issue. But the mental strain we’re under is definitely showing.
Zoom fatigue is not that difficult to resolve, so we can start with that. We’re not conditioned to be on camera all day, staring at a screen. The solution begins with more frequent breaks, shortened sessions and more interactive activities online. I think it’s really important to recognize that meeting virtually is not the same as meeting in person, so we can’t just mimic what we did before. We need to be cautious of scheduling back-to-back virtual meetings as well. People need to get up, move, step away, and take a mental break in between meetings. I think this may be contributing to the challenges in schools with virtual learning as well. We can’t just move the curriculum from the classroom to the computer. Kids can’t maintain focus and engagement hour after hour staring at a screen. We have to get creative and find new ways to communicate, teach and connect in a virtual world. I believe we’ll end up with all kinds of innovative programs and inventions as we figure all of this out, but in the meantime, we can make these small adjustments to ease our fatigue.
Pandemic or quarantine fatigue is a much more serious problem. Health experts believe that the latest explosion of new cases in Europe is due to this because people are just tired of living under these conditions or they relaxed their vigilance because cases dropped so low. In the U.S., experts are mixed on why we’re spiking again. Some say pandemic fatigue, some say re-opening businesses and schools too soon, some say it’s from extended families getting together…like everything in this country, there’s never a clear answer to much of anything. Regardless, what we all do have to do is stay alert to our mental and physical well-being.
Our natural instinct is to resist or deny discomfort. We’re just wired that way. But what that typically does is only intensify our level of suffering. It takes a lot of effort to try to ignore difficult emotions, regulate our anger or frustration, avoid looking at our own behaviors or external conditions. It seems a lot easier to tamp down those uncomfortable feelings, to get angry and blame others for our circumstances and to just ignore what’s going on in our minds and our environment. Ultimately, however, this may take a substantial toll on our overall wellness.
The roots of mindfulness come out of Buddhism philosophy which includes three marks of existence that I think are very apropos right now. The first mark is that bad things happen and suffering occurs. What can we do? We can remember that suffering is a part of everyone’s lives. It is unavoidable and so there is no use in resisting it.
The second mark is that everything changes. Nothing is permanent. Our bodies, relationships, environment, thoughts, and emotions are always changing. We suffer unnecessarily when we hang on tightly to good things, and rail against bad things. What can we do? We can remind ourselves that we may be in a difficult spot right now, but that won’t always be the case.
The third mark is that there is very little in life truly about us and we are not the cause of someone else’s words or actions. What can we do? When someone lashes out at us, we can see that this is not personal. The virus isn’t personal. Government and leaders’ responses are not personal. Other people’s behavior is not personal.
A mindful approach to managing our discomfort is acceptance. In order to overcome any setback, we first have to accept that it exists. Simply accepting the reality of our circumstances can be an incredibly productive step. We can spend a lot of energy resisting something, whether it’s internal, like a difficult emotion, or an external factor, like a global pandemic. Whether we think something is going to bring us joy or misery, we don’t really know what's going to happen. We call something bad, we call something good. But we don’t actually know because we never have all of the information involved and we can’t predict the future impact of what is happening right now. Acceptance does not mean to condone, agree with or like a situation. It is simply acknowledging the reality of a situation. Whatever has happened has happened. We can’t un-do it.
Our reaction to an event very often causes us the most harm. It can leave us worrying, replaying events and conversations in our mind, or stuck and upset about what's happening. We can’t move forward until we accept the situation. Living our most vital life involves accepting reality as it is, and working with whatever that brings us.
With this acceptance comes the understanding that life is still full of choice points. If someone is treating you poorly, you accept that this is happening, but you have a choice about how to respond. If you encounter racism or oppression, acceptance doesn’t mean that you condone the behavior, nor that you have to tolerate it, but only that you recognize it is occurring. If you are experiencing discomfort from the pandemic or shutdowns, acceptance does not mean that you like it. Acceptance means that you don’t create more discomfort trying to resist the circumstances, but instead focus on maintaining your health & well-being through the experience. Acceptance helps us get to the choice point faster, instead of spending time denying, rationalizing or resisting what is.
Our first experience of pain and suffering is from an event itself. Something happens and we’re in emotional or physical pain because of it. The pandemic caused a lot of people pain or suffering. Or the shutdown of businesses caused a lot of pain and discomfort. That’s the event that we have to accept for what it is and there’s no avoiding the resulting pain or suffering.
But we humans do a funny thing. We add a second level of pain and suffering. It comes to us through the story we develop about the event, where our mind takes the basic facts of the situation and goes a step further to draw conclusions and make inferences. We go into the past and obsess over self-blame, or lack of fairness. We complain. We go into the future to a place of fear, anger, insecurity, worry, anxiety, and depression. We ruminate over what might happen, what could happen. We judge ourselves harshly, and we draw out the pain of our difficult emotions.
Pausing to unpack that second layer of pain can help us work with our minds and decrease unnecessary stress. We do that by developing awareness of our conditioned responses and through developing our resilience and flexibility to change our responses.
We already have these skills and we’ve previously discussed how to strengthen them. But if we don’t first accept what the situation is, as it is, and then practice self-awareness in order to identify how we’re reacting in our minds, we won’t have a starting point for improving our circumstances.
The good news is, we can improve our well-being. We can choose to focus on the positive, but accept that negative feelings and events are also very real. We can practice self-compassion when those negative feelings arise, gently exploring our emotions and our thoughts in a non-judgmental fashion. We can focus on our strengths. How have we managed other difficult situations in the past? How did we pull ourselves out of a funk prior to the current events we’re experiencing? Who can we turn to for support? Asking for help when we need it is a powerful strength.
There are several simple and evidence-based steps we can take when we feel ourselves sliding down a negative emotional spiral. Exercise is a simple solution. Studies indicate a half-hour of cardio is as effective as a prescription of Zoloft. Gratitude, again. I have to keep repeating this because so many people think it sounds too easy. If you focus on three things you’re grateful for every day, research shows that you can increase your state of being in as little as two weeks. Eating well and getting enough sleep will also improve your mood.
Studies indicate that there are multiple negative effects from watching the news so another simple solution is to stop watching or reading the news. And no doom scrolling! Again, I know I’ve said it before, but we’re drawn to negative information so it’s easy to slip into watching hours of news without realizing what we’re downloading into our brains. Hopefully you heard our recent podcast about the negative effects of social media on our society and are cutting back on that, too.
Finally, we need to socialize. We’re wired for it and I think this may be one of the strongest drivers of “bad” behavior that we’re seeing spread the virus. Socializing on a virtual platform does not feel the same as hugging a person by any means, but we have to accept our circumstances for what they are. Get creative. What can you do with friends or family online? Play games? Have an at home spa treatment? Watch a movie together? Eat a meal together? What about in person? Can you meet a friend at a park where you can chat even though you’re physically distanced? How about taking a walk with someone? Set up lawn chairs in driveways and visit with neighbors? Being with other people makes us feel better, so make this a priority.
In the end, to effectively cope with our situation, we need to be with our emotions, instead of running away, tamping down, or suppressing them. We need to accept that life is difficult right now, but since nothing is permanent, this will pass. We need to take whatever steps we can to shore up our mental and physical health which will support us in getting through all of this either faster or in better shape once it’s over.
Tara Brach, American psychologist, author, and proponent of Buddhist meditation, uses the acronym RAIN as an easy-to-remember tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using four steps:
R - Recognize what is happening and accept it for what it is.
A - Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.
I - Investigate with interest and care. How does it feel inside the body?
N - Nurture with self-compassion. Think about how you would talk to a friend or a young child who was feeling these feelings.
You can take your time and explore RAIN as a stand-alone meditation or move through the steps whenever challenging feelings arise. She has guided meditations on her website if you’re interested in exploring at tarabrach.com/rain.
Spend some time over the next week noticing any discomforts. Notice that your instinct is to pull away and instead, see if you can just sit with that uncomfortable feeling at least for a few minutes. Try a RAIN meditation. Add even one of the techniques we just covered into your daily routine and observe how you feel after doing it. It’s not rocket science. We just need to dedicate a little time and attention to where our thoughts are going so that we can steer them in a better direction.
Have a wonderful, mindful week.