We’re exhausted. But we can seek the bright side.
Here we are, about a year after the start of the pandemic and we’re still facing limitations, lockdowns and letdowns. We can (and should) congratulate ourselves on our adaptability and all the resilience we’ve built. But if we’re honest, we’re just ready for it to be over and to return to the best of what we’re missing.
After a year of getting used to new ways of learning, living and working, why do we continue to struggle? Why are things so challenging and how can we buckle down for a continued slog?
Sometimes just naming something can take away its power—and recognizing and validating our experiences put things into perspective. So, with that in mind, here’s why it’s so tough and how to make it through.
You can’t look forward to the same things. While we know herd immunity is coming, we just don’t know what to count on. This ambiguity is hard because humans crave certainty, but it’s really even more simple than that: You don’t have the same plans pending. Chances are, you don’t have a vacation to look forward to or that amazing biannual outing with friends. While the end seems to be in sight, you may not—yet—be in a situation to really look forward to anything.
Another element of frustration is that you’re facing challenges you didn’t think you’d have to face again. When your daughter missed her college graduation last year, you didn’t expect your son to have to miss his high school graduation this year. When you put off your wedding, you didn’t think you’d have to wait this long for your nuptials. The pandemic has dragged on and while it was hard to miss out on important milestone events last year, it may be even harder to miss out again this year.
On the bright side, for all the missed opportunities, you really can look forward—eventually—to relaxing at a resort, attending your alma mater’s football games or celebrating your niece’s bat mitzvah in person. Remind yourself that optimism will get you through (it’s been correlated with greater happiness, health and longevity as well). And as the saying goes, “Everything works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out, it’s not the end yet.”
You may also be struggling with disorientation. Temporal disintegration is a real condition where stress and trauma can cause a disordered sense of time. You can’t remember what day it is, and it seems like holidays and events came and went in a fog. What happened to the Fourth of July or Halloween or even New Year’s Eve? Sure, you probably celebrated in small ways, but chances are you didn’t feel the marking of an event, nor the marching forward of the seasons—because you weren’t able to acknowledge them in the same ways you used to. It may even seem like you’ve fallen into a time warp. Normal times feel like decades ago and at the same time, things are flying by (like children’s growth or the time you have to finish that work project). This general distortion can cause exhaustion.
The one-year mark also gives us pause. You can look back on last Valentine’s Day and remember the normal dinner out with your partner, or last year’s end-of-winter semi-formal your son attended or the shopping you did with your daughter for the graduation dress (that she didn’t get to wear). We are reminded of all we’ve lost and all we’ve been through—and of all we have still to bear.
On the bright side, we are getting through. Things will return to a closer version of what we were used to in the past. Every day complete is a day closer to a future, and we can increase our appreciation for the little things. When we’re finally able to celebrate again, the moments will be sweeter for their absence. As Robert Brault said, “Enjoy the little things in life, for someday you will realize they were the big things.” This is our moment to develop gratitude.
Another reason you’re exhausted is you miss your people. You appreciate the close relationships you’ve maintained with your inner circle, but have also lost touch with contacts in your secondary or tertiary networks. One company I know has been doing brief pulse surveys with their employees once a month to understand people’s challenges and wellbeing. They’ve asked about the quality and quantity of people’s connections. They’ve learned that as the pandemic drags on—and especially as people work from home and lack face-to-face connections with their colleagues—they are increasingly reporting a decrease in the quality of their relationships and a decline in the number of their connections. This is, of course, also correlated with mental health. Research continues to demonstrate as our connectedness is compromised, so is our wellbeing.
You’re also exhausted because you’re seeing people you care about suffer. It would be different if you were struggling independently, but in addition to your own challenges, you’re also empathizing with the people you care about. Friends, neighbors, relatives and acquaintances are missing out and mourning for what they’ve lost. As a member of a community and a caring human, this can be tough as well.
On the bright side, we can embrace our craving for people and relationships. We have the opportunity to develop our empathy, feel a deep level of gratitude for close friends and look forward to rekindling relationships with more distant contacts. One of the primary ways people develop strong bonds is by going through hard times. This certainly qualifies. We have the chance to come out on the other side of the pandemic with new levels of depth in our friendships and stronger bonds in all our relationships.
You may also notice people just aren’t as patient as they used to be—and perhaps you’re not either. You may find yourself angry about things that would normally be only slight annoyances. You hear yourself being short with your colleague over a small issue. Or you may witness new levels of rudeness in others during day-to-day experiences. The woman who was given the wrong order at the coffee place comes unglued with the barista, or the gent who had to wait outside the store because of limited capacity begins a shouting match with the clerk. This kind of reaction is based on a general fatigue as well as a cognitive dissonance. Things aren’t as they used to be, and this can create a heightened sense of tension—which comes out in unexpected or inappropriate moments.
Another reason for difficulty is the pandemic’s long duration. There’s a fatigue factor and the things which used to entertain us just don’t anymore. You may love to read, or you’ve knitted hats for everyone you know, but without other elements of variety in your life, these things are not as enjoyable. This too can create discomfort. When things you used to enjoy are no longer pleasurable, it can be disconcerting.
On the bright side, you may be developing patience, getting creative about what motivates you and figuring out where you can improve. After all, recognition of a weakness is a key to making it a strength. You can also use this opportunity to be forgiving toward others. When people aren’t at their best, we can provide them with grace and new beginnings each day. As Robert Fulghum wrote in All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, one of the things we can do to increase our wellbeing and quality of life is to “hold hands and stick together.”
In addition, we can embrace our own influence. The most important way humans learn is through watching others, so you have an impact as a result of your own behaviors. Your choices matter and you can positively affect others by the ways you react and respond.
While you’re probably exhausted and so over the pandemic, we’ll all get through it. Naming the problem and validating our challenges can be a relief. At least we know why we’re down, and we can work to get back up. Going forward, we are developing our resilience and surviving. Ultimately, we will thrive—and we can do this best when we remain optimistic (as much as possible) and support each other.
I am a Ph.D. sociologist exploring perspectives on work-life and fulfillment. I am the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work and also Bring Work to Life by Bringing