How to heal our national exhaustion


An illustration of an exhausted person sleeping in bed.
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Americans have burnout on top of burnout on top of burnout. Now what?

What comes after burnout?

That’s the question facing a lot of Americans as we stagger into 2022 still carrying the burden of a pandemic on our shoulders, plus some other burdens including but not limited to the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, the real and disturbing threats to democracy, and the seeming inability of the highest levels of the US government to address these dangers. It’s even boring to talk about how much any of us — parents, students, cogs in the broken-down capitalist machine — are dealing with at this point: “Does Anyone Want to Hear About Burned-Out Moms Anymore?” Amil Niazi asked at The Cut. That was in August 2021.

Now, in January 2022, many Americans have been dealing with fear and stress for so long that it’s become a kind of numb fatigue permeating everything. “When you’re anxious all the time, it really just saps your energy,” Angela Neal-Barnett, a psychology professor at Kent State University, told Vox. “You don’t want to do anything.”

This lack of motivation obviously impacts our individual lives, but it also affects our communities and the country as a whole. Americans are disengaged from the news and numb to politics, our circuits overloaded from months of crises and coup attempts. Some experts say we’re losing our ability to empathize with one another; others say we’ve been steeped in badness for so long it’s become difficult to imagine a better world. At this point, “I wonder where people are getting their hope from,” said Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Still, giving up all hope has negative consequences for individuals, society, and the planet. Meanwhile, our current habits of mind and body may be conditioning us toward further exhaustion and nihilism. We can feel better, Cyrus and others say, but it takes believing in a future that can sometimes be hard to see.

How we got so exhausted

The pandemic has been taxing our resilience from the beginning, but today, some 22 months since the United States first locked down and more than a year since the vaccine rollout began, it feels like something new is going on. It’s not just the Great Resignation (which may be more of a Great Reshuffling anyway). It’s an overwhelming sense of can’t even that pervades all aspects of personal and civic life.

You see it in “vaxxed and done” Americans who are all but giving up on Covid-19 precautions after months of punishing surges and repeated false dawns have sapped their will to be careful. Sixty percent of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, reported being “worn out” by Covid-19 in a December 2021 poll.

For some of us, the pandemic has sapped our will to … do anything. The beginning of 2022 was notable for its backlash against New Year’s resolutions, with memes warning us against getting too ambitious in this least auspicious of Januaries. As Vox’s Rebecca Jennings put it, “Growth? Change? Self-improvement? In this economy?”

American exhaustion is also visible in our engagement with the news, which has plummeted in the last year. According to the analytics company Chartbeat, traffic to news publishers dropped almost 20 percent between January and December 2021.

There’s also evidence that Americans are growing increasingly disengaged from politics. For example, American democracy remains at risk, with some experts even fearing the country could be headed for civil war. Yet while Republicans remain highly energized, passing laws at the state level to make it easier to overturn the next election, Democrats aren’t showing a comparable drive to protect election integrity. In one October poll, just 35 percent of Democrats said they believed democracy was under major threat, compared with 71 percent of Republicans (a majority of whom also erroneously believe that Donald Trump won the last election).

Part of the reason for relative Democratic inaction may be that there’s no adversary in the White House right now: “​​Trump personified the threat as an individual; changes to state laws or who administers elections are far less salient or likely to mobilize people to take action,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, in an email.

However, sheer numbness may also play a role. “I do worry about people becoming desensitized to warnings of democratic erosion,” Nyhan said. Indeed, “there can be a boy who cried wolf problem — when the worst doesn’t happen, it’s easy for people to dismiss the warnings.” Since the January 6 insurrection didn’t actually install Trump as president, it was easy for some Americans to tune out — especially since they were so exhausted already.

Meanwhile, the energy for social change that defined much of 2020 seems to have dissipated to a degree, or at least changed shape, with public protests and social media campaigns a less prominent part of the ecosystem. Many activists were feeling burned out long before the pandemic, and are now trying to figure out how to continue their work in this new era, said Dom Chatterjee, founder of the group Rest for Resistance. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of people who have the energy to maintain that always-on, 24/7-doing-the-work activism anymore.”

It’s no surprise that many people are running on beyond empty at this point in the pandemic. Experts started telling us in mid-2020 that prolonged anxiety was taking its toll on our minds and bodies, and that was like three variants ago.

Now, many Americans have spent years in a psychological space that Neal-Barnett, the Kent State professor, describes as “not knowing what’s going to happen next and believing that something awful is going to happen next.” Being there for so long “really does sap your motivation,” she said.

In some ways, things were clearer early in the pandemic, when lockdowns shuttered businesses and schools and drastically limited what Americans could do. Now, a more open economy leads to more decisions — and more decision fatigue. While vaccines and improved testing have saved lives and made gathering easier, they’ve also made the day-to-day risk calculus more complex. “Early in the pandemic, the decision was skewed more toward physical health,” said Elaine Roth, a writer and mom of two, in an email. “Now, my children and I are vaccinated, so physical health is no longer the only focus. It means the decisions are more nuanced now.”

Making all those decisions adds up, especially for those, like Roth, who are raising kids on their own. “Any negative consequence — whether to physical or mental health — will ultimately be my fault, because it was my choice alone,” she said. “That’s a heavy burden to bear for nearly two years.”

Making matters worse is the sheer number of interlocking crises on top of the pandemic, from climate change to police violence to democratic collapse. “Covid in and of itself is enough, right? But then you add all of these other things to it, and it’s almost too much for people,” Neal-Barnett said. “That’s where you get people who are saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

What does rest even look like in 2022?

Of course, a significant number of Americans aren’t worried about Covid-19 at all. Among those who are, the burden of exhaustion falls harder on some than on others — health care workers and educators, for example, are experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout as Covid-19 once again strafes the nation. Black Americans and other people of color are more likely to live in communities hard hit by the virus, and less likely to have access to federal relief programs. LGBTQ+ Americans, especially young people who may be back living with family and cut off from friends and supportive networks, are also under extra strain, Cyrus, the Johns Hopkins professor, said.

On an individual level, what feels like fatigue and malaise for one person could be severe depression for another. On a population level, meanwhile, our collective exhaustion affects our ability to relate to one another. “People don’t have the wherewithal to be empathetic anymore,” Neal-Barnett said. “The things that we do to make our environments inviting and warm and supportive go out the window, and we’re people who are at each other’s throats.”

Moreover, for many people, Covid-19 has cut down on the day-to-day interactions that kept us from dwelling on our own troubles, from chats with coworkers to dinners with friends. People are lacking in both variability and versatility of experience, Cyrus explained: “You’re not interacting with different types of people and you’re not having different types of interactions.” That leaves many of us reliant on the internet, “which tends to be biased toward the negative,” Cyrus said. We’re all doomscrolling without anything fun to cleanse our palates.

There are, however, ways for us to cope with our exhaustion and even kick-start ourselves out of it — without becoming nihilists or burying our heads in the sand. Chatterjee, for example, has been thinking of Rest for Resistance as going through a “winter phase” where the work won’t stop, but may change. Burned-out activists may find themselves “needing to find rest from the movement itself right now,” they said, but “that doesn’t mean quitting.”

It may mean simply taking “a day where we’re thinking about ourselves through the pandemic and not the entire community,” Chatterjee said. A restful day can look different for everyone: It could be watching a movie, or cooking, or just taking a mental rest from the constant pressures of problem-solving. For some people, work can even be restful, he said, especially if it happens on their own terms.

“In acrobatics, in order to do these things that look superhuman and cool, you actually have to learn how to balance where the tension is being held in your body and where you’re letting go and actually resting,” Chatterjee said. “It’s not one or the other; we’re not resting or working.”

Among Cyrus’s patients, the ones who are doing the best at this point in the pandemic are working toward a goal or have something concrete to look forward to, the psychiatrist said. Cyrus herself has anxiety and depression, and what’s helped her is planning a winter trip for herself and her partner. “You have to find some sort of thing that feels new,” she said.

If you’re feeling too burned out to do anything more than the minimum right now, remember that goal-setting can also be about changing our relationship to time. “Things will get done at the pace they get done,” Cyrus said. “If it doesn’t happen that day, can you make it happen in the next seven days?”

Setting and executing goals, though, is a lot easier for people with the money and time to do things like planning a trip. It’s difficult “to be empowered and set a new goal if you don’t have the resources,” Cyrus said.

Unfortunately, part of the reason we’re so exhausted in the first place is that systems like paid leave and child care have failed to keep up with the pandemic or with the realities of our lives. Changing those systems will take time — and energy. The good news is that we’re not alone.

“Somebody could be thinking all week, ‘I just want to watch a movie’ or ‘I just want to cook a meal’ or whatever it is that they’re going to find restful,” Chatterjee said. “And it’s not until somebody says, ‘That’s a great idea, you should really do that,’ that they actually stop and go do that.”

“I’m really interested in that dynamic,” Chatterjee said. “How do we truly encourage each other to rest?”