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The Long-Term Impact: Navigating Burnout and Grief Four Years After the Pandemic.



It’s March 2024. Despite the fact it’s been four years since our world changed as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic most of us are just now starting to connect with the impact this collective trauma has had on us. Much of our focus and attention has been on some of the innovation and creative problem solving that emerged. Unfortunately we’re not as connected to how much was lost and its beginning to affect us.


In my personal life as well as in my clinical work I’ve had many conversations with people who are wondering why they feel drained, run down, disengaged, burnt out and depressed now. Below I share some of the reasons I believe it’s taken us four years to start to feel the weight of the pandemic (spoiler: trauma & grief); offer a simplified explanation of how trauma works; explore unresolved Pandemic grief; and provide some ideas as to what we can actually do to support ourselves and one another.


Why Are We Feeling Burnt Out Now?

We’re currently living in an incredibly stressful time. 


For those of us in the United States we’re in an election year – just like we were in 2020. In fact, it looks as though we’ll be looking at the same two presidential candidates as we did in 2020. For many of us it feels like deja vu all over again. The similar landscape in addition to the fact that our brains are wired to find patterns and look for similarities it’s quite possible that our psyches are going into high alert. Our minds are hypervigilant; scanning, looking, waiting for something terrible to happen just like it did in 2020.


In addition to the familiarity of a four-year political cycle, we’re all trying to survive daily life while living an unsustainable lifestyle as recently described in a Times Magazine article. Globally, societally, within our communities, inside our families and within ourselves.  At every level of our human experience we’re facing ongoing, sustained challenges.


The number of collective traumas that have stacked over the past four years is more than most individuals can process. Over the past four years we’ve experience a global pandemic, witnessed racism and murder, endured a politically divided country (in the US), continued to face a climate crisis, increased houselessness alongside a growing wealth gap, witnessed abortion rights revoked, LGBTQI+ discrimination and violence, multiple wars, and a current genocide. 


Any one of these experiences can be overwhelming to an individual. In other words, any one of these experiences can be traumatic.


I often wonder if there is a moment available for our nervous systems to slow down. I also wonder what coping mechanisms the majority of us have in place to support ourselves through such ongoing and overwhelming tragedy. Some folks turn away and ignore what’s happening; they “power through.” Others shut down – a natural response to overwhelm. But nothing seems to truly support the moving through.


How Trauma Works (simplified).

In his book Trauma is Really Strange Steve Haines defines trauma as “anything that overwhelms our ability to cope.” When we experience an event that’s incredibly stressful, scary or distressing, it is often too difficult to stay present. As a result the psyche becomes overwhelmed and does some things to protect us from the experience. 


In the best of situations, after experiencing a traumatic event, we are supported by loved ones and able to process what happened. Ideally, we receive love, connection, and validation. This responsiveness allows us to process the trauma so that it doesn’t lead to long-term difficulty.


Unfortunately when we think back to March 2020 the vast majority of us were overwhelmed when the world as we knew it froze. Everything shut down, including our ability to process the trauma we were collectively experiencing. Most of us didn’t have tools to cope and all of us were experiencing the same traumatic event at the same time. This meant that, for the most part, we couldn’t rely on connection and support as a means for processing trauma.


As a whole, we were forced to keep functioning. The expectation to work, to parent, to take care of aging loved ones – these responsibilities did not stop. It was like we were dropped onto a completely different planet - one where we didn’t speak the language - and expected to navigate it without missing a beat. 


Unresolved Grief.

Covid-19 stole the lives of many of our loved ones. It also stole (and continues to steal) the livelihood of those who suffer from Long Covid. Recent studies have suggested that those who experienced such a loss are more likely to suffer from prolonged grief. But losing a loved one isn’t the only grief that the Pandemic prompted.


Over the past few years there’s been a general sense of moving on. Many of us (me included) talk about “back during Pandemic times” as if it’s something long passed. Collectively we haven’t slowed down and acknowledged what we’ve been through. We haven’t processed the grief. We haven’t honored the ending of many things as they were. 


The problem is when we ignore our grief it doesn’t disappear. In fact it gathers energy and often transforms into anger, depression, and isolation. Fast-forward to the conversations I’m having with clients, friends and family today: why am I feeling so depleted?


What to do about Burnout.

So what do you do when everyone around you is also overwhelmed, burnt out and experiencing the same stressors that you’re experiencing? While it’s impossible for any one person to solve or address the myriad of stressors in the world, we do have control over how we respond to ourselves when we notice we’re struggling. A recent article in Women’s Magazine suggests some of these include moving your body, connecting with people, crying and doing something creative. 


Notice & Acknowledge. First and foremost we have to notice that we’re struggling. Awareness is the very first ingredient in any movement toward change. Notice your behaviors – are you sleeping more or disengaging from things that formerly brought you joy? Notice your feelings – are you sad, lonely? Notice your thoughts – are you thinking of life pre-2020? Are you longing for experiences that came more easily “then?” Notice your body – are you achy? Do you often feel a lump in your throat or have more frequent headaches? All of this is information and once we notice what’s happening in our inner worlds we have the opportunity to respond.


Rest. Take time off – a big chunk and small chunks. We cannot work ourselves out of burnout. If we’re going to continue to move forward in today’s world we need to pause. We need to rest. We need to be aware enough to notice when we’re starting to feel run down – rather than put our head’s down and keep pushing until we make ourselves sick. None of this is new. We’ve known this for sometime now. Rest is essential. But we seem to be moving further and further away from a place of slowing down. 


Connect with our Bodies. The “mind-body connection” has become an increasingly popular phrase over the last several years in large part because growing research suggests that our bodies carry an incredible amount of information in them. When we’re able to bring awareness to our physical bodies, we start to notice what we need moment by moment. We get to know ourselves more truthfully and we’re able to respond to our own needs with kindness and accuracy. This is all part of healing.


Connect with Others. As described above, we know that one way to avoid post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is to be able to share the stressor with someone. The Nagoski sisters talk about this as completing the stress cycle. They outline many ways we can complete the stress cycle in the modern world. 


Practice Self-Compassion. Self-Compassion is one tool I personally use, teach, and encourage those around me to use. According to self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion invites us to pay attention to our needs and to respond to those needs with the same kindness we would offer a friend. By asking ourselves what do I need we invite a connection with ourselves that is otherwise often overlooked in our busy daily life. 


Four years isn’t really that long. We’ve moved through it as if we’re racing toward a finish line, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re running from ourselves. Consider pausing. Consider checking in with yourself. Consider reflecting on how you’re really doing, how you’re really feeling. Connect with loved ones. Share your fears and disappointments. As the common saying goes, “the only way through is through.”

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