Symptoms and Solutions for Pandemic Fatigue

Dr. Rachel Sternoff, DNP, ARNP, at Overlake Medical Center details how to recognize and deal with the chronic stress that can accompany a prolonged pandemic.

Reflections magazine: What is pandemic fatigue?

Dr. Rachel Sternoff: Pandemic fatigue is the cumulative effect of stress on our health. It occurs when you’re navigating change and uncertainty for a prolonged amount of time and results in symptoms of chronic stress.

RM: What are some of those symptoms?

RS: We are having a lot of patients come in with elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, chronic diarrhea, headaches, insomnia—and a lot of these symptoms are clearly stress-mediated.

RM: What exactly is happening when people exhibit these symptoms?

RS: When our bodies are stressed out, we go into fight or flight and release epinephrine and cortisol. Those hormones are supposed to be temporary and increase the heart rate, blood pressure and release glucose into the blood stream so we can run from a bear or run from a bus—it’s something to help us be proactive so we can use stress for good. The problem is right now they are chronically elevated.

RM: What happens when we experience chronic stress?

RS: It can lead to heart attack, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, sleeping issues, infertility, many different conditions.

RM: Do you have any tips to help people identify when they are exhibiting symptoms?

RS: Most patients are actually aware their symptoms are stress-mediated, they just aren’t sure what to do about it because as of right now there is no current end in sight. They know what’s going on, but they are not certain of a clear solution.

RM: What are some of the strategies and solutions you suggest?

RS: The biggest thing is people are used to getting up in the morning, going to work, spending time with their family, working out and eating dinner at the end of the day. But our routines have changed significantly. It’s important to keep a routine of some kind, even if you don’t leave your house—to wake up and eat at same time, work out 30 minutes each day. Keep a sense of repetition, just in a different capacity.

RM: Do you have any other long-term solutions for if this continues many more months or years?

RS: Something that people have figured out is what actually recharges them in a positive way. Some people are finding that they always thought of themselves as an introvert, and they may be craving social connections. Or the other way around, classic extroverts may find they had been craving alone time. Recognize what actually makes you happy and make it part of your day every day. That’s my best piece of advice: continue to find what recharges you.

RM: When should people come see you or another physician in regard to stress-mediated symptoms?

RS: As soon as it starts affecting your life you need to see someone. For example, when it affects your personal relationships or how you’re communicating with people. Sleep is another big indicator. Also, I know there’s a lot of stress around going into a clinic, but at Overlake we have video or virtual visits available. There are also many online resources for mental health. It’s so important to be proactive about your health right now.

RM: Do you have any advice for kids specifically?

RS: The main thing is to remember they are watching us. It’s important to have conversations with them about what’s going on, but the best thing you can do is lead by example. Also, try to keep a regular schedule for them too. Usually I don’t recommend screens, but I’m very thankful for technology right now so they can keep in touch with everyone.

RM: What about advice for parents?

RS: Keep in mind it’s OK to not achieve what you want to achieve in any given day. Try to see the positive, because we all need to maintain a positive outlook on life right now.

RM: Do you have recommendations on how to check in with loved ones and friends? Any prompts?

RS: If you see another family member affected, have a simple conservation with them about how they feel. Sometimes we can internalize stress and not know it, so starting conversation is often enough to get people to see they need to get a little more help than they realize.

RM: Any last tips?

RS: Yes, be mindful of your habits. Limiting news coverage and social media to one or two sources can be very helpful. Don’t engulf yourself with a lot of info that may not be fact- or evidence-based.

To book an appointment with Dr. Rachel Sternoff, please call 425.635.6350.

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