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Pandemic Overwhelm: Learn the Signs and How to Create Change

- Zoom fatigue

- Lockdown boredom

- Information overload

Recognise any of these? They’re some of the common signs of overwhelm as we limp towards the end of this pandemic year.

For me, the feeling was captured by a friend who messaged our group chat one recent grey Monday morning: ‘I’m just so, so tired. I’m done. Sorry I can’t share anything more positive or productive than that this morning, but it’s the truth.’

Since March, I’ve spent so many hours in the ‘work’ corner of my living room (the sofa on the opposite side is reserved for Netflix and lounging – sometimes we work with the boundaries we have). As the nights have drawn in, days have started to whiz past in a blur of Zoom calls and screen-staring. With little separation between work and home life, creating distance and mental space in the evening can be difficult. Lockdown weekends have involved adventurous trips to new parks in my area. Anything to break up the monotony.

Meanwhile news reports update by the hour, minute or second as lockdown rules shift, cases go up or down, even good news about vaccines just slightly too far away. We hungrily seek information that we think will help us understand – but often just leaves us feeling more lost and powerless in a world spinning out of control.

Let’s stop. It’s time to take a step back, breathe deeply, and reflect on where we all are – and what will help us get through the coming months.

Signs of Overwhelm

- Tiredness/exhaustion;

- Lack of motivation;

- Memory lapses;

- Strong feelings close to the surface, or outbursts/breakdowns seemingly out of nowhere.

Many of us are feeling some or all of these things at the moment. The first thing to say that this is understandable; we are eight months into a global pandemic which has turned our lives upside down.

Even those of us who have been lucky not to lose our jobs or be put on furlough have often experienced life-changing shifts at breakneck speed, going from standard routines in place for years to sudden working around the kitchen table or behind masks. In the circumstances some, or all, of these responses are totally normal.

While some kind of end to the pandemic is now creeping into view through vaccines and testing, we all know we have a few months to go. One colleague said to me last week how, for her, this is somehow harder: ‘I can see the end, but it’s not within my grasp yet. There’s no firm date – just a promise. That promise is good, yes, but today – well, today’s still just as hard as things have been for months.’

What Can you Control?

Ironically, a sure sign of overwhelm is when our usual self-care practices go out the window – just when we need them the most. Suddenly we find we are too busy or tired to get outside for a walk or to exercise, to pick up the phone and connect with close friends and family, to take time out for something we love or to switch up our routine. Life closes in on us, and the lockdowns of the past eight months have only made this worse.

Here are some key coping strategies to help shift out of a dead-end or feelings of ennui while life remains locked-down:

- Acknowledge how you feel: Don’t pretend that everything’s fine. Though the specific impacts of the pandemic have been different for all of us, no one has been left unaffected by this year.

- Ground yourself. If things feel anxious, overwhelming or out of control, try this grounding exercise: Sit in a chair with both feet firmly on the floor. Take deep breaths. Count to 3 on your breath in, 4 as you breathe out. Gradually increase that to 4/5, then 5/6 if it’s comfortable. Do this for a few minutes and it should help stabilise any feelings of panic, bringing you back into your body.

- Step away from your scrolling of choice, whether it be social media or a newsfeed. Information can be addictive and help us to feel more in-control in that moment, but the cumulative overload and excess screen time can add up over time to a feeling of powerlessness in the face of never-ending news. And it’s true: Most of the things we see on the news are out of our control. So…

- Focus on what you can control. Can you go for a walk? Pick up the phone? Cook a nice meal for yourself or those you live with?

- Can you create some newness to break the monotony, even within restrictions? Last weekend I travelled a short distance to some woods I’d never been to. Fresh paths (and air) helped move me beyond the stuck feeling, and gave me a resource to draw on during the week in the house that followed. It’s a small thing, but when our lives and horizons feel much smaller than at any other times in our lives, small changes can have a big impact.

- Think about structures you can put in place to maintain emotional balance for the next few months. Whether that be an exercise routine, regular phone or zoom calls, or setting up counselling or coaching sessions. Consider what helps you feel less overwhelmed, and plan to bring some of that into your life regularly.

- Remember that these feelings are a normal response to an abnormal situation. There is nothing wrong with them, or you for feeling them.

What Leaders Can Do

If you are a manager or leader, you may have the double helping of coping with your own overwhelm alongside supporting others in their own. It’s worth returning to the well-worn maxim of the flight attendant: Be sure to secure your own oxygen mask before helping another (and gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve been on a plane now…)

Check-in with yourself regularly. Many good managers let the needs of others take precedence over their own wellbeing, but in the long-term that is a recipe for dissatisfaction, resentment and even burnout. You’ll be in a better place to support and empower others if you have taken the time you need to look after your own needs.

Or perhaps you’re coping by dismissing the needs of your team or not thinking about them too much, whether on purpose or not. While ignoring or denying issues can help us feel more in control in the short-term, it may help to be curious about what’s going on for your team – and for yourself. Set up some zoom calls.

Time spent connecting and sharing honest feedback, and building the bonds that will allow those processes to come more smoothly, is time very well-invested. It will help you get through this pandemic as a team, and will improve productivity and innovation as things go back to ‘normal’ – whatever that may look like.

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