In This Episode: Even before Covid-19, a lot of us were pooped — wrung out, over capacity. And with Covid, a lot of us are even more tired. This episode doesn’t just talk about why, but how to build your resilience to the stressors of this crazy year that’s not over yet.
084: Why You’re So Tired
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Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.
For the past 27 years, my life has been wall to wall content creation: writing This is True and some combination of the Honorary Unsubscribe, Randy’s Random, the True Stella Awards, this podcast, and other projects.
No, says Dr. Ann Masten, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies resilience in human development.
What is resilience, in psychology speak? “There’s general agreement that resilience refers to positive adaptation to adversity,” she says, “but my own view is that we need to think of resilience as the capacity of a system. I think what we’re seeing right now, in the midst of this catastrophic pandemic, is that we all depend on the resilience of many systems in our lives. We’re learning how interdependent we are, and how much we depend on the support of other people, our health care system and many other emergency systems in our communities.”
Humanity has overcome a lot of adversity over thousands of years, so resilience is definitely a good thing. “In order to develop a healthy immune system,” she says, “you really need to have some exposure to challenges. I think the same thing is true for building resilience.”
How do parents help their children build resilience? By letting them make mistakes, even though you could step in to help them not make it. Obviously this doesn’t apply to truly dangerous situations.
So how is this compatible with so-called “helicopter parenting”? It isn’t. Parents that are always “hovering” around, trying to “help” their children — even after they’re adults — are doing true harm to their offspring. It undermines the building of their confidence. They need to be challenged so they can learn, “Why yes, I can do that!”
Yet here we are, in a pandemic, where it’s hard to know what the rules are. And because so many Westerners are so stubborn, we’re still in the height of infections, even while a lot of the world is pretty much back to normal.
After about 11 months of this, we’re getting “Covid fatigue” — but that’s only part of why so many of us are so tired all the time.
There’s another factor that Dr. Masten talks about, and it’s related to something I quoted her on near the beginning of the episode: “we need to think of resilience as the capacity of a system.”
What does she mean?
People often describe their lives to her, relating to the pandemic, as “surreal.”
“I think that word captures the feeling that a life is being so utterly altered by something that we cannot even see that can kill us and harm our loved ones,” she said. “In the case of something like a tornado, or a building being destroyed, we see the damage. I think the images that make us realize how threatening this situation is, are the ones we see on television of emergency rooms and the hospitals that are overwhelmed.” Yet as we go to the store, things look pretty normal, not counting those who are wearing masks.
She says that adults and children should limit their intake of news: it’s scary, and repetitive, and it wears us out. The worry or fear fills up some of your capacity to deal with stress. When you’re tired, your capacity goes down, and you can be overwhelmed by this ongoing emergency that is killing thousands — every week — in the U.S. alone. Remember how awful you thought the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were? Well, not only are that many dying in the U.S. every few days, that’s been going on for months and months.
Is it any wonder you’re tired all the time?
“If you are working hard to deal with challenging things,” Dr. Masten says, “you can simply get exhausted and overwhelmed, and then we need to step back and try to replenish and restore our capacity.”
That doesn’t happen overnight. Or, actually, it does: extra sleep helps you recover your reserves of capacity. It’s why my wife and I took time off and used some of our accumulated hotel points to get a nice suite overlooking the river in Durango, Colorado, a couple-hour drive over three mountain passes. One of the things we did was sleep in: I got about 9 hours a night. But instead of jumping back to work during the day, went on walks, especially along the river path. We got great food from restaurants — eating well helps build capacity too. And then we slept in again.
Even three days of that didn’t make us chipper, it got us up to “normal” levels of tired. But that 3-day recharge of our capacity gave us some momentum, which we kept up by choosing to go to bed a little earlier for another week. And yes, that made us pretty chipper again.
How else can we recharge? Dr. Masten recommends some of the same things I have over the past few months: “mindfulness,” such as meditation, and taking time to feel the gratitude for what’s going well for you.
“In a crisis like we’re seeing,” she says, “particularly for health care workers and other first responders and their families, it’s extremely difficult. Day after day, you can get worn down by the strain and stress of this chronic adversity. It can wear you out. We have to watch out for how exhausted we are, because it’s very difficult” to meet our responsibilities as adults “if we are completely depleted.”
In fact there are risks if you don’t: not only to our physical health, but this kind of incessant stress increases the chances of suffering PTSD, especially for those not getting strong support. There’s a reason that the suicide rate among health care workers has shot up. They apparently used up their capacity for resilience, and didn’t feel supported. Rather, they witness the obliviots who don’t think about these things: they go out without masks, gather in large groups, party indoors, and infect more people that continue to overwhelm a health system that was balanced for the status quo, not a gigantic worldwide surge that continues for month after month after month. It’s amazing that so many are still dealing with it!
“On the other hand,” she says, “if you have individuals who do have a lot of support, or you have a good recovery in the aftermath, … generally speaking, [they] recover very well from adversity.”
But those who have to deal with all of this who were already stressed, well, they have less capacity to deal with it. “We also have many people experiencing loss and grief,” she reminds us, “and a unique kind of grief that comes with being unable to have the traditional ceremonies and rituals of practice, whether it’s cultural or religious practices by which we say our farewells and celebrate the lives of people we lose. … It’s really hard to say goodbye without personal contact.” And, I’ll add, it’s harder to grieve when you know some of those who have died from the pandemic: the number of deaths that Covid has caused above and beyond what we’d “normally” lose means that’s most of us.
But before you get too depressed about all of this, Dr. Masten points out the other side. “We don’t just experience stress,” she says. “We discover that we have reserves, we discover the strengths we have, we connect with people,” including virtually, with phone calls, Zoom, and other technologies.
You also get some recharge by helping others: their gratitude helps fill your reserve, helps you build resilience, because you help get their groceries, help them make a Zoom call to their grandchildren, or just empathize with their grief over the people they have lost.
Also, “It’s important for children,” she says, “not only to see their parents regulating their emotion, but also to learn from interacting with adults how to regulate their own emotions. It’s a critical aspect of managing stress, and also an important aspect of managing our relationships with other people.”
“As the demands grow on us during this crisis,” she continues, “I think it’s important to pay more attention to the ways that we regulate how we’re feeling — that we, first of all, pay attention to how we’re doing. Sometimes you don’t realize that you’re getting anxious and tense and to begin to feel it in your body.” That’s when it’s especially important to rest, clear your mind, and work to build your capacity up again.
“Let’s face it,” she says, “right now, a lot of our fears and anxieties are realistic, but we can’t think about them all the time. We have to give ourselves breaks.”
“Over the years and the research I’ve done,” she says, “there have been many different stories of what made a difference, a turning point, and sometimes the turning point was a person, like a neighbor. Sometimes it was a teacher who took a special interest in a child.” Which also harkens back to earlier Uncommon Sense episodes: remember that you can make a difference like that in a young person’s life.
The Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast84, where you can help support these episodes, and comment.
I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
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