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Tips on surviving pandemic burnout

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Exhaustion, cynicism, irritability, difficulty concentrating, sleep disruption and reliance on unhelpful coping mechanisms like alcohol, cigarettes or drugs are all symptons of pandemic burnout to look out for.

As Lockdown 2.0 lingers and the news cycle continues its reporting of exposure sites, case numbers and travel restrictions, the Newcastle Weekly spoke to manager of counselling and clinical services Hamilton’s The Rosewood Centre Kelly Pavan to learn some tips on how we can all survive.

“We looked forward to putting 2020 to bed on New Year’s Eve, celebrating the end of one of the most globally challenging years in living history, and hoping for better times to come in 2021. But, unsurprisingly, it turns out that COVID-19 did not take this as a hard deadline.

“Here we are with lockdowns and unpredictability continuing to rule over us, dictating areas of our lives that we previously took for granted as everyday freedoms. 

“And, nothing quite activates the autonomic nervous system like headlines about mutant COVID strains popping up across the country (or reverting to homeschooling).

“Since this kicked off, some of us have lost loved ones, lived with job security issues, experienced the relationship strains intrinsic to being confined to close quarters with others, financial problems, and so on.

“Frustration, overwhelm, panic, or perhaps a level of desensitisation to unfolding events are normal feelings in response to this kind of prolonged stress. Not to mention the productive guilt – social media and news mediums are a constant reminder that while Shakespeare managed to write King Lear in lockdown during the bubonic plague, I’ve only binged a few Netflix series from the couch in the life and times of COVID-19.

“But when does understandable fatigue and related despondency cross over into a condition known as ‘burnout ‘;  impacting our ability to take care of ourselves and do things we know will safeguard our mental and physical well-being to see us through this?

“The term burnout was initially coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. 

“Freudenberger defined burnout as, ‘The extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results’.

“Over the ensuing years, Freudenberger’s theory was applied to workplace stress and employee engagement. 

“We can draw on those learnings and apply them to what we are experiencing now, particularly in recognising burnout related to the pandemic and strategies to mitigate a longer-term impact.”

Psychologist Kelly Pavan.

Symptoms of burnout to look out for are prolonged experiences of:

· Exhaustion

· Cynicism

· Avoiding previously pleasurable activities

· Irritability

· Difficulty concentrating

· Sleep disruption – difficulty getting to sleep and/or staying asleep

· Physiological symptoms like headaches, gut and bowel issues

· Relying on unhelpful coping mechanisms like alcohol, cigarettes or drugs/medication in a way that negatively impacts your ability to function

Tips for managing pandemic burnout symptoms include:

· Prioritise self-care: eat well, exercise and make time for mindfulness and rest. These points may sound obvious to most, but that’s because they are the basic pillars that sustain us and are also some of the first areas we neglect in a stress response.

· Locus of control: So many aspects of the pandemic sit outside our control. Focusing on what is within your circle of influence can provide a sense of agency and lead to achievable goals. Consider what aspects of your life you have control over (your choices, behaviour, actions) and attend to those. Do not borrow worries that have not yet occurred; this is an epidemic that ebbs and flows; we do not know where we will be in a week, so breaking down activities into daily plans is beneficial.

· Lower your expectations: it is okay that we’re not all producing masterworks or achieving our stretch goals at the moment. You have permission to go into defensive mode at times like this. Setting realistic and agile goals that can be adjusted to suit the constant changes will help reduce some of the pressure.

· Turn to others: a sense of isolation correlates with increased vulnerability to burnout. Talk to your people for connection and to normalise your experiences. Sometimes speaking to an objective person outside your immediate network can also assist in addressing burnout symptoms, and a psychologist can help you with this.

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