A viral tweet from February asked: “Just to confirm … everyone feels tired ALL the time no matter how much sleep they get or caffeine they consume?” The 71,000-plus retweets seemed to confirm it’s the case.
But when we say we are exhausted, or Google “Why am I tired all the time?” (searches were reportedly at an all-time high between July and September this year), what do we mean? Yes, pandemic living is, objectively, exhausting. Existing on high alert is physically and mentally depleting; our sleep has suffered and many of us have lost a sense of basic safety, affecting our capacity to relax. But the circumstances and stresses we face are individual, which means the remedy is probably also individual.
The need for a more granular, analytical approach to fatigue is partly what prompted Dr Saundra Dalton-Smith, a physician and the author of Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, to start researching and writing. “I wanted people to take a more diagnostic approach to their fatigue. When someone comes in and they say they’re hurt, I can’t treat that without having more details: what hurts, where does it hurt, when does it hurt?”
She would never, she says, recommend a three-day silent retreat to a completely frazzled patient. “For some people, rest is almost uncomfortable. It’s almost as if their psyche fights back against it because of the new sensation.”
The book is about incorporating enough moments of rest to stay functional. Dalton-Smith is thoughtfully critical of society’s inability to take a preventive approach to its “burnout culture”, commoditising sleep (“It’s a billion-dollar industry, we have speciality pillows, weighted blankets, all of this stuff”) rather than focusing on the root problem.
When we feel fatigued most of us focus on sleep problems. But proper relaxation takes many forms: physical, mental, emotional, social, sensory, creative and spiritual.
People get stiff and achy, sitting for far too long. It’s advised to incorporate “body fluidity” into a day with hourly small movements. It’s easy and rewarding to set a phone reminder to roll your neck, clench and unclench your hands, or stand up and rock on your heels. Even better is the advice to “choose to be still on purpose for five minutes while lying down.” Also, the usual “bedroom routine” advice i.e. to dim lights, wear comfy clothes and absolutely no bedtime screens should help, too. You can further add some stretches before bed.
Mental fatigue – that befuddled, nervy, brain-fog feeling; forgetting what you were doing, and missing important things because your concentration is short – is our constant companion. It is quite easy to improve our focus with a basic technique: make sure your phones have the 25-minute focus, five-minute distraction timers on, especially if you’re working on something important. It will block out “low-yield activities”, such as email and social media, and give you some definite periods of concentration. It dovetails well with the hourly movement breaks from physical rest, too.
One suggestion is to identify people who “drain” you. Another tip is to “risk vulnerability”; you can try writing down what you are feeling, if confiding in others feels too exposed. The third is to “cease comparison”. None of these are exactly quick fixes.
This means spending time with people with whom you can be your unvarnished self. Maybe, have a leisurely lunch with your best friend, someone who knows your worst qualities and nastiest thoughts. Such treats are deeply restorative. They can be your emotional rest as well.
The pandemic saw “a huge uptick in the number of people who were experiencing sensory rest deficits”. People confined to the house with small children in particular were exposed to constant noise and even some adults “irritated each other to death. That non-stop hum of somebody talking in the background causes you to get agitated. That’s what sensory overload does to us.”
The idea behind this type of rest is to “build sabbaticals into your life”. It can be as little as 30 minutes, doing something you choose, away from the grind. Have a cup of hot chocolate perhaps at a favourite café, walk around with no particular purpose and you’ll feed good, different in fact, since you’ll be looking beyond your usual environment.
You don’t need to share any faith to incorporate “spiritual” rest into your life. “At the core of spiritual rest is that feeling that we all have of needing to be really seen, of feeling that we belong, that we’re accepted, that our life has meaning.” That might come through voluntary work, or other activities.
It’s useful, too, to analyse what sort of tired you are and to have a toolkit to address at least some kinds of fatigue. Rest is basic maintenance, not self-indulgence. We can’t function forever fuelled by adrenaline and caffeine, fogged brains scrabbling to function, nerves frayed like a cheap phone cable. Sure, we can sleep when we’re dead, but a little rest before that would be nice.
Compiled by SZ