You can fight social distancing exhaustion with just a few small changes, experts say
When social distancing was first enforced in New York City, there were a few changes to my mental and physical health that I anticipated would result from remaining at home. First, I knew my anxiety would likely skyrocket—uncertainty and illness are major triggers for me—and second, I knew I’d start to feel down not seeing my support base as often. What I didn’t anticipate was the perpetual exhaustion I’d feel that makes it extremely hard to get up in the morning and progress through my day.
I’ve been sleeping 10 hours a night, without fail, and yet I still find it challenging to leave my couch. While I believe part of this stems from my preexisting mental health issues, the lack of activity and sunlight is definitely not helping me feel any less tired. Since some of my friends and family have mentioned they’re feeling the same way, I decided to speak to a few healthcare experts to find out why a lack of energy can be a pervasive effect of social distancing—and what we can do to combat it. Here’s what they had to say.
Why am I feeling so tired during quarantine?
Have you ever heard the joke that humans are just houseplants with more complex emotions? Turns out, there’s some truth to that. Since we’re not leaving the house as much, that lack of outside time is having a real, negative effect on our bodies.
“Remaining indoors for considerable periods of time means less exposure to sunlight, and this has been shown to impact the body’s circadian rhythm,” Dr. Daniel Atkinson, the GP clinical lead at Treated.com, tells HelloGiggles. Circadian rhythm refers to the body’s sleep/wake cycle, he explains, and, “without sufficient exposure to sunlight, the body may not be able to synthesize vitamin D as well as it should, leading to disruptions with our body clocks. This can impact on our ability to focus, and make us feel out of sorts.”
Similarly, Dr. Anup Kanodia—a specialist in alternative, integrative, and functional medicine with a private practice in Columbus, OH—adds that social distancing can prevent us from coming in contact with the sources that typically rev us up.
“Many people draw energy from nature, which is something you just can’t do inside the house,” Dr. Kanodia tells HelloGiggles. He adds that a lack of socialization can also lead to less energy, noting: “Some people get energy from talking and interacting in person with others. Shelter-in-place orders have obviously dramatically reduced this important interaction.”
Exposure to an overload of bad news can also cause our brains to shut down, leading to exhaustion, says Dr. Rachel Singer, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety and depression. “Constant anxious thoughts about what might go wrong can tire us out and lead to shutting down,” she explains. “Think of it as being like a turtle retreating into its shell. There is only so much we can handle before we need a break.”
How can I stop feeling so tired?
First things first: Pay attention to any anxiety triggers that may be depleting your energy. “One of the first things I recommend to my patients is to limit the amount of time on social media and news-watching,” Dr. Soma Mandal, a board-certified internist, tells HelloGiggles. Staying too connected, she says, “zaps your energy levels like nobody’s business. Limit your surfing to no more than one hour a day and 30 minutes of news daily. This way you can still keep up to date without getting overly anxious.”
From there, prevent the monotony of spending a prolonged period of time inside by giving yourself a sense of routine like you had before the pandemic.
“It’s important to keep your days as structured as you can—especially if your usual routine has been impacted significantly by coronavirus,” Dr. Atkinson advises. “Besides sticking to your typical sleeping and waking habits, pursuing a new hobby or maintaining existing ones can help to keep your brain stimulated, which may stop you from feeling fatigued during the day.”
If you don’t know where to start hobby-wise, now’s the time to explore anything that sounds remotely interesting. While the vast array of possibilities can seem a bit daunting, think of the world as your oyster. “There are so many online classes you can try out,” Dr. Snehalata Topgi, an emergency room doctor at New York’s SUNY Downstate/Kings County Hospital, tells HelloGiggles. “Get a keyboard and learn how to play the piano. Try new glam makeup video tutorials. Get a 3D puzzle. Get back to reading. Try meditating. Do an art project with your kids.”
Additionally, if your day is mostly spent working remotely, remind yourself to stand up and get off the couch every now and again. “Don’t sit all day. Stand when you are working,” Dr. Kanodia says. “Take breaks and stretch. Don’t work in your bed or where you eat. Create a specific place or area in your home and designate it as such. All of this will help with your energy.”
Physical activity is incredibly important right now, even if it might feel like the last thing on your mind. Give yourself a nudge to take a walk outside if you’re comfortable, or spend 20 minutes doing light exercise indoors, as both options can work wonders for your energy.
“[Try] online home workout videos,” Dr. Togpi recommends. Some solid options are offered by Down Dog, Orangetheory, or Obe Fitness; I personally have been taking a Yoga with Adrienne class each day.
It’s also a good idea to take time to connect with those who mean the most to you. Even if you aren’t the type to derive your energy from groups of people, reaching out to just one close pal via Zoom, FaceTime, or a simple phone call can help alleviate feelings of anxiety.
“We need to keep social distance going, but that doesn’t mean that our friendships our over,” Dr. Mandal says. “We are so lucky that technology allows us to stay connected. Engage with people who are positive and make you feel good. Check in on your family and friends as often as you can.”
How can I help my overall mental health during quarantine?
According to Dr. Singer, now is the time to be especially mindful of your mental health and to be kind to yourself.
“This is an unprecedented global crisis,” she says. “For most of us, this may be the most dramatic shift in our lives, [and it happened] in a very short amount of time.”
If you’re feeling anxious or depressed in addition to exhausted, it’s understandable. “Since COVID-19 impacts everyone, our usual support systems may not be available or may be dealing with their own crises,” Dr. Singer says, forcing some of us to grapple with our issues entirely on our own. Additionally, she adds, “Many individuals are experiencing heightened expectations (e.g. maintaining their workload while also parenting) or a stressful change in circumstances (e.g. losing a job, fears about health).”
All of those things, combined with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, can lead us to develop mental health issues or find preexisting mental health issues worsening. Because of that, it’s important to recognize signs of anxiety or depression as they crop up. “Low energy or challenges related to motivation is one of the classic symptoms of depression,” Dr. Singer says. Other symptoms include feelings of sadness, irritability, loss of interest in things that brought you pleasure previously, guilt, and trouble concentrating, according to the Mayo Clinic. Generalized anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is typically characterized by persistent feelings of worry, overthinking, the inability to relax, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating.
While making sure to get time outdoors and stay connected to our friends can help our mental health, they might not be enough for some of us during this difficult time. “This can be a big challenge to deal with by yourself. Therapy can help,” Dr. Singer says. “Every therapist I know is currently doing telehealth (or remote therapy sessions).”
You can discuss the possibility of virtual appointments with your current therapist if you have one, or check with your insurance carrier to see if telehealth is covered. If you don’t currently have a therapist, Dr. Singer advises going to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America site, which has a therapist locater. Your primary care physician can help you find someone who is in-network, too. There are also apps and hotlines available, like Talkspace, BetterHelp, and the Crisis Text Hotline, which are good alternatives if you do not have insurance coverage or are acutely struggling and need someone to talk to immediately.
Feeling anxious, depressed, lethargic, and unmotivated are all pretty common emotions right now. But if you are suffering alone and finding it truly hard to get through your day, know that you don’t have to exist in this state permanently.