I'm Feeling So Emotionally Drained and Physically Tired — Could It Be Pandemic-Related Stress?

I'm sleeping more than I was before this pandemic began, yet I'm so exhausted all the time. Of course, I've worried this could be a sign I had the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), despite realizing that fatigue alone isn't a symptom. After talking to my best friend, who's a psychologist, she sweetly said, "I think you're just overstressed."

Overstressed? I have no idea why! Could it be that I'm worried about my family catching this virus, or that my older parents will get it and I'll never see them again? Or maybe it's because I'm working full-time while simultaneously homeschooling my two kids, and summer camps may not happen, so I'll have three more months of this? Could having to cook and clean up after three meals every single day stress me out, or the fact that I'm doing an epic amount of cleaning since my family is home all the time? Or maybe it has to do with my lack of self-care, not getting any alone time whatsoever, and not working out or eating like I'm used to. Could that be why I'm overstressed?!

Can Stress Affect Your Energy Levels?

All joking aside, so many of us are feeling all kinds of stress right now — emotional, financial, and physical — and one symptom can be feeling tired and having low energy. "Stress is an expected response to life's challenges," psychologist Dr. Whitney Maynor, PhD, explained to POPSUGAR, and causes our body to release hormones that cause protective responses to prepare it to react quickly and effectively.

When your body first experiences stress, it has an alarm reaction, explained psychologist Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP. She said the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which plays an important role in the stress response, are activated, which releases cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine into the bloodstream. The body begins to make adjustments to your energy levels accordingly. You might experience muscle tension, slowing of your digestive system, reduced sensitivity to pain, and elevated blood pressure. This response can actually produce a burst of energy that can benefit your well-being, which can actually be motivating or empowering for some, but draining for others.

The second stage is resistance, which occurs when the body's resources are depleted, which results in exhaustion, unless the stressor is removed. If it continues, this is where illness and discomfort in the mind and body can occur, Dr. Lockhart said. The third stage occurs when the body is completely drained. "This is where anxiety, depression, irritability, impulsive or self-destructive behavior, and other self-medicating behaviors may occur," she said.

When we feel overly tired, we often examine our sleeping habits or assume it has to do with an underlying illness — but stress can often offer the best explanation, said Dr. Maynor. While stress can cause headaches, muscle tension, stomach problems, sleeping issues (sleeping too much or too little), and even affect your sex drive, feeling mentally exhausted or physically tired is one of the more common effects of stress.

How Does This Pandemic Affect Stress and Energy Levels?

The coronavirus pandemic has elevated stress to a whole new level. People are trying to make sense of a situation that feels surreal and never-ending, Dr. Lockhart said. Because the pandemic occurred suddenly and abruptly impacted our lives, and we couldn't plan in advance or make sense of it, it's taken an even greater toll on our well-being.

For some, coronavirus-related restrictions were initially met with an expected burst of energy, and we witnessed some of the benefits of the first stage of stress, explained Dr. Maynor. This degree of stress fueled our desire to "flatten the curve" and protect public health. "We conscientiously practiced social distancing, diligently figured out how to move school, work, and fitness routines to our homes, and worked enthusiastically and creatively to support those who couldn't remain home. This stress was initially viewed as a challenge we could meet. It felt empowering," she said.

For many, the stress has moved to the second and third stages. With time, the restrictions and losses felt daunting and taxed our coping skills, creating the perfect storm for stress-related fatigue. "Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, isolated, uncertain, as well as having invasive, unrelenting COVID 19 thoughts and worries help to explain why fatigue is so pronounced during this time," Dr. Maynor said.

Another complicating factor is that the fatigue itself can trigger COVID-19 worries, since it's a symptom associated with the virus, she added. This can serve to exacerbate our feelings of fatigue.

How Does Stress-Related Fatigue Affect Your Life?

Chronic stress, energy levels, and low mood are linked, and together, they can wreak havoc on your daily activities. Prolonged stress zaps our energy levels causing physical and mental fatigue, and in turn it negatively affects our mood. You may experience anxiety, depression, lack of motivation, a feeling of helplessness, and irritability.

"People experience higher levels of stress when their perceived ability to cope or their actual coping strategies are overshadowed by the event or situation. If they don't have adequate support or other protective factors, they will experience higher levels of stress that can actually be quite harmful," Dr. Lockhart added.

If you're experiencing physical fatigue, it may be difficult to complete a workout or find motivation to exercise. You may have difficulty walking up stairs, carrying your groceries, or even walking the dog, Dr. Maynor explained. If you're experiencing mental fatigue, you may find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. It can also cause sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, or trouble remaining on task. This can make it particularly challenging to meet work and personal demands or goals.

Dr. Maynor added that avoiding management of stress-related fatigue can contribute to other health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. So it's important not to push through or ignore it.

What Can You Do If Stress Causes Fatigue and Lack of Energy?

A critical first step when noticing changes in energy levels is to talk to your primary care physician to make sure these changes haven't been triggered by a more serious medical condition, Dr. Maynor recommended.

After ruling out any underlying medical conditions, identifying and eliminating sources of stress can be the most effective approach to managing your mood and improving fatigue. But Dr. Maynor said that can take months, and notes that at times, the sources of stress are beyond our control. In the absence of a solution, and facing the likelihood of ongoing and persistent stress, consider addressing how you respond to the stress that makes you feel mentally and physically exhausted. Here are ways you can manage your mental health:

  • Seek out emotional support: Reach out and talk to someone like a trusted friend, relative, or a professional. Venting about how you feel can be cathartic, but the support and advice offered could help you cope with what's causing your stress.
  • Make social connections: Social disconnection is not only a symptom of fatigue, but it's associated with mental health issues like depression. "Our connections with others are a source of our strength and help us to feel more engaged and satisfied with life," Dr. Maynor said. "Remember that it's not so much about the number of connections you have, but how these connections contribute to positivity and your overall happiness," she added. Have a Zoom party, join a virtual book club, or set up a group video chat workout to foster those connections.
  • Pay attention to food and drink choices: Stress affects behaviors like over or under eating and drug and alcohol misuse. Fatty foods, sugar, or alcoholic drinks can contribute to energy slumps over time, so try to eat foods that offer nutrition to fuel your body.
  • Utilize movement: Many research studies demonstrate not only the physical health benefits of exercise and movement, but the mental health benefits — especially their role in managing stress. Find ways to exercise that make you feel good and that offer energy, instead of draining it. Exercise can be as simple as going for a walk, dancing in your living room, stretching before bed, or more physical types of exercise like HIIT workouts or lifting heavy if you're up to it.
  • Prioritize self-care: Taking care of your mental health and physical health are equally important. Eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and getting the proper amount of sleep are key, but don't forget to also feed your soul by doing things that bring you happiness. Take walks in nature, relax with a book on the couch (or take a nap!), do some yoga, find ways to express gratitude, bake a cake, paint, play music, spend time with your family, garden — make time every day for a little joy. And don't be afraid to take a personal day if you need it.
  • Manage your expectations: Many of our expectations are unrealistic, especially given the uncertainly and rapidly evolving nature of COVID-19, Dr. Maynor said. Expecting yourself to constantly and consistently "get it right," or function at pre-COVID-19 levels is not only unlikely (setting yourself up for disappointment), but mentally exhausting. Set and maintain boundaries. Where possible, take on less, delegate when possible, and ask for help.
  • Mindfulness: This involves attending to the present moment, on purpose and without judgment. This is an additional tool to reduce stress and manage closely related struggles with mood. Mindfulness can be done anywhere and any place. Dr. Maynor said meditation and deep breathing can promote a sense of calm and relaxation, and should have an important role in your self-care routine. Try these guided meditations to help you de-stress.
  • Focus on the positive: Dr. Maynor said that many people can have inattentional blindness, where they miss things that are right in front of them. She said to become more selective about the things you pay attention to. As COVID-19-related information dominates our news feeds, social media outlets, and conversations, we are likely to miss some of the less stressful and even inspiring events that are also happening, like John Krasinski's Some Good News or these ballerinas from around the world dancing together. Try not to become blinded to a sunny weekend, the excitement of an upcoming birthday, the enjoyment of a well-executed pantry meal, or just simply noticing that you are doing the best you can under the circumstances.